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Taking a radical approach to fine dining: Chefs Choi Hyun-seok and Gaggan Anand play with their food

Dec 14,2018
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Chef Choi Hyun-seok of restaurant Choi. in Seoul, right, and Gaggan Anand of restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok, prepared dinner together at Choi’s restaurant last week. [TASTY COOKBOOK]
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Chef Choi Hyun-seok, left, demonstrates to guests how to eat the dish being served, while chef Gaggan Anand, middle, explains the dish to guests. At right is the menu that was made for the collaborative event. [TASTY COOKBOOK, LEE SUN-MIN]
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Some of the highlights served during the collaborative dinner event. [TASTY COOKBOOK, LEE SUN-MIN]
After snagging a dinner reservation at one of the city’s hottest restaurants, many people spend hours picking out a fancy outfit to wear and skip a meal the day of in order to be able to eat as much as they can. For chef Gaggan Anand of the restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok, that phenomenon never quite made sense.

“Why do we have to be hungry all day?” asked the chef during his third visit to Korea last week, suggesting that fine dining culture should be more relaxed.

“Hold your dish up and lick up!” he shouted while serving a dish he cooked with Korean chef Choi Hyun-seok at the restaurant Choi. in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, while music telling people to “Lick it up” played in the background. “You all have an animalistic instinct in you, so bring that out!”

With loud music playing, diners began lifting up their plates and licking the pastes that were served on it. The uncommon eating technique drew laughter from diners, most of whom had never eaten straight from a plate at an upscale restaurant before. Some were hesitant and looked around to see what others were doing, while others were having fun recording themselves licking their plates clean.

“This isn’t a dish that just focuses on having fun,” added the chef. “When you lick, you get flavors onto all parts of your tongue. It is usually difficult to feel all of the flavors at once when you eat.”

The chef, who originally came from India, opened a restaurant in 2010 after he moved to Thailand with only around $500 in his pocket. He wanted to provide an unusual dining experience for people and suggest a way that fine dining could be crazier, more creative and fun.

He took Indian food - more often served at casual eateries than at fancy restaurants around the globe - to another level. His creativity led him to imagine ways Indian cuisine could be eaten in ways rarely seen in fine dining rooms. At his Bangkok restaurant, 21 out of the 25 dishes available are served to eat without utensils, in order to honor the Indian style of eating with one’s hands.

Additionally, Gaggan plays rock and roll music in the dining room to match the excitement of his dishes. And Anand’s creative approach to dining has paid off - his restaurant has been ranked No. 1 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant list for four consecutive years.

To better introduce chef Anand to Korean diners, the Plating Company and Tasty Cookbook matched him with Choi Hyun-seok, a celebrity chef who has often showed his desire to make fine dining more fun.

Instead of having the two chefs present their own dishes side by side, the dinner was truly a collaboration. For the dinner, chef Choi tried his hand at “covering” chef Anand’s dishes in his own distinct style. While some of the dishes were made in the same shape used in Anand’s dishes, they had a different taste. Other dishes looked completely different but had familiar tastes. The two chefs even made the menus resemble records that diners could turn to see the list of dishes to be served, a nod to the concept of covers popular in the world of music.

“This is a rare chance for me to cover someone else’s food,” said Choi, who visited Bangkok about a month ago to experience Anand’s food and brainstorm how he would make his own version. “It wasn’t easy, but it made me think that there are more things I can explore.”

Chef Choi added sea urchins and seaweed to bring out seafood flavors from what looks to be a green apple on a plate. Choi also created a plate of sushi on a stick to make the seafood over rice dish resembling a popsicle. He also made Korean-style jeyuk bokeum, stir-fried spicy pork, into a Gaggan-style dish that looks to be a red pepper.

While it tastes just like the spicy pork, the presentation was something completely unique.

While Anand enjoyed his recent visit, it may be his last appearance in Korea for a long time. He recently announced that he would close Gaggan in 2020, and open a new restaurant in Fukuoka, Japan. Starting in March, when he will be done with his trips that are already booked, he won’t be cooking outside of his own kitchen in order to focus on those traveling to Bangkok to try his restaurant before it closes.

Gaggan is fully booked until June, and starting in January 2020, the restaurant will only be open for its regulars until it closes its doors.

Anand’s event was a stop for a group of foodies from around Asia who recently visited Korea to learn more about local cuisine. They also visited Monk Jeongkwan in Cheonjinam Temple, South Jeolla, with chef Choi, to learn more about the diverse dining cultures of Korea. They also took time to learn more about Balwoo Gongyang, the lunch that monks eat as part of their meditation process.

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