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Creative whims make for exciting daily menu

Aug 17,2017
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Chef Kim Jin-hyuk of Alla Prima in Nonhyeon-dong, southern Seoul, plates a dish made with sweetfish and corn. A more detailed look at the dish is pictured at top left. The chef, who enjoys cooking seafood, also makes a green vegetable gazpacho with abalone, shown at bottom left. [PARK SANG-MOON]
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The ideas a chef chooses to explore are not up to be judged until they are laid out on a plate and brought out to the dining room. The more chefs test their imaginations in the kitchen, the more they are able to specify the taste and texture on the plate.

Chef Kim Jin-hyuk of Alla Prima has shown that being true to his instinct and spontaneously following the ideas in his head have led him to make dishes that satisfy the taste buds of whoever walks into his restaurant. His ideas, which have him discovering new possibilities every day, have made him confident in establishing his own specific style.

The executive chef at Alla Prima in southern Seoul never stops mixing and matching ingredients. If a handful of fresh broccoli reminds him of an herb he has yet to use in the kitchen, he finds the herb and updates the menu. If he gets access to expensive truffles that he can use to garnish six dishes, he will only accept reservations for six people. The menu at the restaurant changes continuously, and is based completely on what Kim is thinking of and inspired by that particular day.

His ability to nimbly come up with creative dishes based on what is available allowed him to act fast to refine his menu when he first heard the news about the possible arrival of the Michelin Guide to Seoul, although his fast-acting ways also slowly tired him out and eventually affected his health. Earlier this summer, Kim had a tumor removed that turned out to be benign, but caused the chef to sit and think about the way he works in the kitchen.

“Being spontaneous has brought me both good and bad things,” said Kim as his tendency to get bored easily made it hard for him to set up a system to run his restaurant as well as take care of his own body. “I have come to think that I could possibly try to build up a system that could allow me to better manage my spontaneity.”

While he was studying in Japan, he saw the struggles of some restaurants who failed to be recognized by the Michelin Guide soon after the international review book arrived in 2007. He knew his restaurant wouldn’t even have a slimmest chance of growing further in the dining scene in Seoul if he didn’t get recognized by the guide.

In order to secure a spot, he felt that he needed to refine his food. In his opinion, his Italian food inspired by Japanese cuisine, a popular trend he saw in Japan during his stay, was too casual to draw attention from critics. He didn’t hesitate to begin investing more into refining his food and the restaurant immediately. He became bolder in using a variety of ingredients and even bought new sets of tableware to provide a different feel to the overall impression of his food and to ensure that his restaurant was more unique than any other in Seoul.

“I had to create an identity of my own,” said Kim.

His restaurant’s bar seats, which are right by the kitchen and allow diners can watch chefs cooking and plating up close, comes in handy when explaining his inspiration behind his dishes. On any particular day, he will carefully describe the fish he is using - ranging from euneo (sweetfish) that is cooked to be entirely eaten from head to tail, to red mullet, which relatively rare in Korea, and even fish sperm.

Kim shares with diners the knowledge he learns from visiting fish markets to ensure that they have the best dining experience possible.

“Using what’s seasonal is necessary,” said Kim. “But what’s even more important to me is letting diners know how I use [unusual ingredients, that are] not often served anywhere else, more appealing and tasty. I want them remember that experience so that they come back for more.”

“I have never delved deep into one particular cuisine, but I have seen many different styles throughout my cooking career by working at a big name company like SPC or small restaurants in Seoul, so I’m in the process of making my own style by blending what I have seen and learned.”

He said he can be confident in saying that what he serves at his restaurant is unheard of in Seoul, thanks to all of the ideas popping up in his head all the time.

But one thing Kim still contemplates is if his spontaneous style is something he wants to continue.

“Now I know I need to be more like a pro,” said the chef. “Whether I like it or not, I am looking at a turning point of my life.”

It is too soon to say that the surgery has changed Kim in any significant way, but he is open to make changes in his daily life, which could inspire him to take a new direction in his culinary style.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]