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The Modern brings multicultural tastes to Seoul: Chefs from MoMA’s restaurant are eager to try local ingredients

Mar 25,2019
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The Modern, which is located inside the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The restaurant has floor-to-ceiling windows that enable diners to take a look at the museum’s garden filled with sculptures. [THE MODERN]
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Korean pastry chef Jiho Kim, left, and executive chef Abram Daniel Bissell, both of The Modern, the two-star Michelin restaurant located inside the Museum of Modern Art in New York, are in Korea to cook today and tomorrow at L’Escape Hotel in central Seoul. [THE MODERN]
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Some of the dishes that were featured during the special gala dinner, put together by the staff of L’Amant Secret and the team from New York. A total eight dishes, some of which were made with fresh produce found in the markets here, were served. [L’ESCAPE]
Feeding your stomach becomes necessary after hours of nourishing your brain and soul looking at artwork in galleries and museums. At the end of a long day at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, many visitors make their way to the museum’s restaurant The Modern, which is run by Union Square Hospitality Group, to continue entertaining their eyes and their brains.

The staff from the two-star Michelin restaurant, including its executive chef Abram Daniel Bissell and Korean pastry chef Jiho Kim, were in Korea last week to showcase the American touch they added to seasonal ingredients found in Korea in two dinners held Friday and Saturday. The team didn’t shy away from making something new in their kitchen in the Big Apple, which is already eclectic and filled with people from all over the world catering to equally diverse diners.

To Bissell, Seoul is where he can paint the plate with any ingredient, as he thinks the city is equivalent to New York when it comes to food. Seoul is a place where hints of all kinds of cuisines from elsewhere in Asia are well-presented, as well as some from Western cuisines, he says.

“We make sure nothing is specifically just one cuisine or the other,” said Bissell, during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, adding that a “universal approach” is the key at The Modern. Together with Kim, who has worked at the restaurant for about five years, the chef is here to share what it’s like to be working in a kitchen at the center of a cultural landmark.



Art in the background

Kim, who claims he doesn’t know too much about art, had an eye-opening moment when he saw the works of Wassily Kandinsky at MoMA during some free time away from the kitchen. The design structure of what he had already been doing when plating his dessert seemed very similar to what he saw there. He liked how the artist juxtaposed lines, dots and faces on the canvas.

“There are many guests who have seen works of art at the museum and are aware of the fact that they are dining at the restaurant located inside the museum, [so] I try to make my plating stylish and artistic,” said Kim, adding that he is inspired by things that are simple, clean and modern. He said there is a chance that diners take in the restaurant more like a show, an extension of the artistic experience they had in the museum.

“Although things aren’t necessarily curated to solely fit the taste of museum visitors, being in such an artistic environment has an influence on the smallest decisions I make when it comes to plating.”

The restaurant does constantly remind its guests where it is located thanks to its surroundings. The floor to ceiling windows show the museum’s garden filled with sculptures. However, Bissell emphasizes that there is a clear distinction between the artworks outside and the food on the plate. The team doesn’t try to make food that has a particular artistic meaning just because its kitchen is in a museum, as the core purpose of the restaurant is to provide tasty and fulfilling food for the stomach. Nurturing one’s soul is the job of the museum’s exhibitions.

“Food isn’t there to be looked at,” said the chef. “It does need to look beautiful because you eat it with your eyes first, but still, food is something you are going to consume.”

This approach to food is how L’Amant Secret, the restaurant inside of L’Escape Hotel in central Seoul, hopes to present in its own dining experience. The hotel has a partnership with the New York restaurant, so the overseas team comes to Korea every couple of months to provide training. The partnership helps the hotel restaurant develop its own distinct personality, and the New York chefs find a new source of inspiration to make their food even more universal.

“It’s going back to the very basic,” said Bissell. “Slowing yourself down in those steps and thinking about what you are doing is what yields something unique at the end. Nothing is automated anymore [when you are in a kitchen outside of your own.]”



On the menu

The team challenged itself to work more with local ingredients during their stay in Korea with the support of the hotel staff, who are familiar with how to handle them. The team of The Modern, which returned to cook for the second time at L’Escape, decided to work even more spontaneously this time around. After their first visit, the team learned that prearranging the menu is not helpful as they will discover lots of seasonal ingredients available at the market that they want to use right away.

The dinner was made up of eight different courses costing 200,000 won ($177). Additional wine pairing of four glasses was available for 100,000 won as the sommelier from The Modern came along with the team.

This time, they discovered buchu, a type of chive, as a substitute for leek to serve with pullet, during their visit to a market. They stuffed the inside of the pullet with pistachios and pour foie gras sauce on it in order to show a mix of Korean, American and French cuisines. To make buchu, which is generally tougher than leek, the team decided to braise it for 18 minutes, an approach not often practiced in Korean households, in order to make the vegetable tender.

“Such a common ingredient is cooked in ways that my mom had never done, thanks to the people who come from outside of Korea,” said Kim. The mix of talents from different cultural backgrounds allows for new ways to think of ingredients.

Before heavier meat was served, pieces of bangeo, a fish generally known as yellowtail, showed that what is presented in a very Western style may taste very familiar to the Korean palate. The fish was served with Korean radish pickled in white kimchi liquid.

“When you eat it, the dish will taste like something familiar, but also different from what you ever have had, and hopefully better than what you have ever had. [Hopefully,] there’s something that surprises you a little bit,” said Bissell.

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

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