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[40 Under 40] Looking globally to create a hybrid cuisine

Dec 20,2017
With chefs now having immediate access to cuisine from all around the globe, it has been difficult to define the cuisine each chef practices at their restaurants these days - except at Ryunique. Here, they call what they serve “hybrid” cuisine - a word whose copyright the restaurant owns as of 2016, according to the Korean Intellectual Property Office. Executive Chef Ryu Tae-hwan of Ryunique explains that his hybrid cuisine means local ingredients found in Korea cooked using the basics of Japanese and French cuisine.

“Just calling my food fusion seemed weak, and I wanted to give it roots so that the life I had working in kitchens in different countries won’t go away,” said Ryu.

“Humans are ruled by the environment they are in and I wanted to define what had influenced me in one word,” he said. “One recipe or dish cannot be something strongly protected from being copied, but at least I now can protect the idea I had while defining ‘hybrid cuisine’ as my own.”

Ryu, who once dreamed about pursuing a career in art, took a turn after he finished his military service. He first went to Japan to study and work for five years, then moved to Australia and England to learn both Eastern and Western cooking styles in hopes of making his own. He took positions at any level he could, from commis to sous chef, and felt competitive each day. He woke up at 5 a.m. to get to the restaurant by 6 a.m., and got home at 1 a.m. On Fridays, he came home at 3 in the morning after cleaning the kitchen entirely. He lost hair from stress and weighed only 53 kilograms (116.8 pounds) back then.

“The early stage of working in the kitchen requires repeating what’s simple over and over again as you fight to overcome your limits,” said Ryu. “If one finds that process boring, that person cannot move up.”

But pushing himself to the limit, he found a source of power and a sense of endurance.

“I wanted to be around people filled with energy so that I can also get power to endure,” he said.

Now that he is in the top position at his restaurant, he sees himself as a ceiling that he needs to break through. Just like he learned how to endure and overcome difficulties while working in kitchens overseas, he continues to train himself through physical exercise. He carries six-kilogram weights in each hand and walks for one hour every day.

Such persistence has kept him going forward with what he believes and pursues in his hybrid cuisine.

“I want people to remember Ryunique more. I’m Ryunique’s Ryu Tae-hwan. The restaurant isn’t just Ryu Tae-hwan’s. The spotlight should be on my restaurant and what it delivers.”

The restaurant was one of the first to receive an international spotlight after it was ranked No. 27 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2015 - a spin off of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, meant to help global foodies discover spots across Asia.

Since then, he has received calls from food organizations and hotels in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, and he attracts more international diners than locals. But he is set to find a way to appeal to more local diners this year.

He is opening a new restaurant, “Rooftop by Ryunique,” this Thursday inside the Galleria Department Store in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, where he can meet a wider range of customers who have not yet visited Ryunique or his other, slightly more casual restaurant, Normal by Ryunique. The newest restaurant will be the most casual out of the three, and will bring larger portions than what is usually served at Ryunique.

“Adding different concepts is one way to communicate with local diners,” said Ryu.

“I take pride in what I have built, but am open to make modifications, so that I can open the door to more people to experience hybrid cuisine.”

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