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Michelin Guide Seoul diversifies its honorees: Pivoting its focus away from modern Korean, the 2020 list celebrates creative uses of local ingredients

Nov 15,2019
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Chefs from 31 different restaurants that were awarded with one, two or three stars pose for a photo with the Michelin Guide’s international director Gwendal Poullennec, center right, after the guide’s unveiling ceremony held to celebrate the release of the fourth edition of the Michelin Guide Seoul. [YONHAP]
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ONJIUM, LEE SUN-MIN, EVETT]
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Amid increasing controversy over whether the Michelin Guide took consulting fees from restaurants in exchange for including them as part of its prestigious star-rating system, the fourth edition of the Michelin Guide Seoul was released yesterday.

Two new restaurants were given two stars, joining the ranks of returnees Mingles, Jungsik, Alla Prima, Kwonsooksoo, and Kojima.
L’Impression, which opened a year ago, joined the Michelin Guide for the first time with two stars, while Mosu moved up to two stars from one last year. No changes were made for the city’s restaurants with three stars, The Shilla Seoul’s La Yeon and KwangJuYo’s Gaon. The guide gave one star to 22 restaurants in Seoul.

Evolving a bit from a focus on restaurants that put modern Korean cuisine up front, this year’s Michelin Guide Seoul seems to lay its eyes more on the use of local ingredients with different cooking techniques, rather than sticking to places serving common Korean dishes. Restaurants whose chefs are known to work with local farmers or travel frequently across the country to discover items common in other regions have been recognized by the restaurant review guide. It has also included many young restaurants that have operated for only a year or a little more on its list of starred restaurants.

“’Do what you do best’ was the advice that helped me a lot as I was preparing for my own restaurant after having worked overseas,” said chef Seo Hyeon-min of L’Impression, who debated whether he should try out trendy modern Korean cuisine when he came back to Korea after working as a sous-chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York City for over four years and other renowned restaurants before.

He decided to study what’s available here to find what he could use to highlight the cooking skills he refined for years while working in the United States. With the restaurant’s opening pushed by about one year to November 2018, he had ample time to study how he could use his innovative American cuisine techniques to highlight Korean ingredients.

“I wanted to make a restaurant that’s not Korean, yet Korean, at the same time, so that both international and local diners could find the dining experience interesting.”

French restaurant Auprès by chef Lee Ji-won has gotten its first star for using a variety of ingredients he actually got his hands on in collaboration with farmers, including savoy cabbage and white strawberries. He made a hairtail fish dish that isn’t widely served at Western-style restaurants in Korea and even raised ducks and pigeons to make the tabletop more diverse.

“Wanting to show what Auprès could do with ingredients available here was the biggest inspiration I had over the years,” said Lee, who has run the restaurant for about four years. “Discovering new ingredients that we can use to cook is the key.”

Restaurant Evett, run by Australian chef Joseph Lidgerwood, was another first-time one-star awardee this year. The chef held numerous pop-up events in Korea beginning in 2016 before opening his own restaurant last year, during which he used ingredients he found during his travels across the country. He teamed up with American sommelier Dustin Wessa who searches for quality Korean drinks and is fluent in Korean in order to show how they can diverge from what’s commonly thought of when cooking common Korean ingredients.

Restaurant Onjium was awarded with one star as well. While it studies recipes handed down from generations ago, it works to study modern-day Korean food as well through a variety of collaborations. It has held pop-ups focused on home-style meals and even collaborated with Tartine Bakery Seoul, a local branch of the San Francisco-based bakery, to show how Korean and international flavors can mix together to create something that’s appealing to younger eaters.

Chef Jang Jin-mo earned his first star with the guide with his second restaurant in Seoul, Myomi. The restaurant, which opened about a year ago, however, is scheduled to close on Dec. 3. He is opening a new restaurant called Antitrust on the following day in Yongsan District, central Seoul.

“It looks like the Michelin Guide has been working to be more inclusive of different ideas done by chefs and restaurants,” said industry expert Kim Hye-joon, CEO of Kim Hyejoon Company.

“But one thing that’s worrisome is that newcomers to the dining scene may simply think using Korean ingredients and Korean-style dishware is what it takes to put them on the fast track to earning a star from the Michelin Guide.”

The question of whether a Korean barbecue restaurant would get a star wasn’t answered this year, although the guide’s Seoul edition gave one star to Boreumsae on its very first list in 2016. Ever since it took away the star from that restaurant, it has not awarded any Korean barbecue restaurant with a star. The guide has given one star to Cote, a Korean steakhouse modeled after a Korean-style barbecue in New York City.

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