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Chef hunts for local ingredients Seoulites rarely get to taste

Oct 12,2017
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Chef Kwon Woo-joong of Kwon Sook Soo looks over the dishware he uses at his two-Michelin-star restaurant which serves modern-style Korean food. [PARK SANG-MOON]
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A Korean-style wooden table filled with small appetizers and an alcoholic drink, inspired by traditional Korean-style juansang, a table filled with food and drink. [KWON SOOK SOO]
Every serious shopper has dreamed of turning to a salesperson and saying, “Give me one of everything in the store!”

Living that dream is Chef Kwon Woo-joong of modern Korean restaurant Kwon Sook Soo, while he shops at traditional markets in small towns outside of Seoul hunting for rare local mushrooms for his fall menu.

“I got mushrooms to last me an entire year,” said Kwon, adding that he has been travelling across the nation to develop trade channels with local merchants and foragers for years. “Everything I do is hansik (Korean food) with very local ingredients, but the taste I draw out of them is something not found anywhere else.”

One mushroom he has invested a great deal of time into bringing to his guests is known as the ggoeggori mushroom, which has to be picked by hand. He gathered about 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of wild mushrooms, but after he dried them, the batch’s total weight shrunk to 1.5 kilograms. They are then are stir-fried in perilla oil and soy sauce and go on top of a piece of raw fish to make a dish. Only two to three grams of these mushrooms are served per dish, but the chef goes out of his way for even the smallest detail.

“There are many more in season than what people think, such as pine and neungi mushrooms,” said Kwon. “People don’t know where to get them nor how to eat them, so I wanted to provide diners a chance to be introduced to the diversity.”

With such ingredients found all across Korea, his specialty is making anything he can from scratch: from sauces like gochujang (hot pepper paste), doenjang (fermented soy bean paste) and even kimchi. He once made over six kinds of kimchi to serve at his restaurant.

Additionally, he makes many fermented fish sauces to add gamchilmat (umami) as well as vinegars made from wild grapes and young, green tangerines.

These sauces are made not only for immediate use, but to be fermented for the future as well. With the restaurant seeing a more steady flow of customers, especially after being awarded two Michelin stars last year, he now can double the amount he usually makes, and plans to try maturing some for a decade or two for a deeper taste.

This is possible because now Kwon maintains a warehouse outside of Seoul where he can store many of his ingredients in low temperatures. Additional refrigerators and a freezer near his restaurant have also enabled him to store and create diverse condiments.

“Now that I have the luxury of being sure [that I will be] running the same restaurant in five years, I can [invest in ingredients],” said the chef. “If I find a farmer with good-quality sesame seeds, for example, I can buy them in bulk and not worry about constantly having to find new vendors.”

Further exploring what’s available in Korea is Kwon’s way of keeping himself and his guests from fawning over American and European cuisine, a trend that is common in local dining culture. He believes in having a strong Korean identity through the food’s presentation or the restaurant’s interior design.

“Many are obsessed with the idea that food needs to be presented in a Western-style, and that its the only way to make [Korean food] work in [high-end] restaurants,” said Kwon. “We need to take the Korean food we make as not only a continuation of the past but also as an inspiration for the future interpretation of hansik, and find ways to approach the cuisine with more sincerity and responsibility.”

What makes his style of cooking with traditional recipes more sleek is the dishware used in the restaurant.

While traveling, Kwon focuses on how chefs make traditional cuisine more approachable and up-to-date. That is when he learned the importance of how a dish is presented - Spanish food looked more appetizing on a plate with distinctly Spanish motifs. He applied that logic to his own eatery, where the plates have a noticeable Korean feel to them.

While he tries to find a way to make traditional Korean food approachable and modern to a new generation’s taste, he also constantly tests out Korean food one may enjoy at home or in everyday restaurants.

Kwon Sook Soo is too refined to serve spicy fish soup or serve fish without its bones removed, so he uses his casual restaurant and bar called Seolhuyayeon to test out old and new recipes with diverse drink options.

He has held unique pop-up event almost every month since opening about a year ago, many of them becoming major events for local food fanatics.

As the only chef and owner of a restaurant with two Michelin stars in Seoul, the next edition of the Michelin Guide, scheduled to come out early next month, has recently been on his mind.

“Now I know the stress of keeping the stars,” Kwon said. “There definitely is pressure that I feel about the chances of losing what I have now.”

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