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Three local restaurants make Asia’s 50 Best list: Korea is now home to the region’s top female chef, Cho Hee-sook

Mar 25,2020
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Chef Cho Hee-sook, center, of Hansikgonggan is named Asia’s Best Female Chef for the 2020 edition of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, at a screening of the official ceremony at her restaurant in central Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]
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Chef Cho, center, poses with chef Kim Dae-chun of Toc Toc, left, which placed 27th on the list, and chef Kang Min-goo of Mingles which landed at 14th place. [PARK SANG-MOON]
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Some dishes served at Hansikgonggan, which is ranked 34th on the Asia’s Best Restaurants list and has one Michelin star. The restaurant is located in Jongno District, central Seoul. [SHIN IN-SEOP]
Amid an influx of news about how restaurants worldwide are struggling to stay open or shutting down to follow social distancing regulations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, a bit of uplifting news arrived for chefs and food industry insiders in Asia on Tuesday.

Three restaurants in Korea were included on the annual Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and chef Cho Hee-sook took home the Best Female Chef Award in addition to landing on the list for the first time at No. 34 with her restaurant Hansikgonggan. Toc Toc jumped the highest, from last year’s 41st place to 27th place. Mingles defended its best-restaurant-in-Korea status by landing on to the No. 14 spot. Korea managed to add one more to the number of the restaurants on the list from last year.

The spin-off of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list is compiled every year by William Reed Business Media, which is based in the United Kingdom. This year’s list was released online in order to include chefs and food aficionados from around the world who are currently restricted from international travel.

The ceremony, which was originally scheduled to be held in Japan’s Saga Prefecture, was shifted online due to the spread of the coronavirus worldwide. It is the first time for the organizer of the annual list of Asia’s 50 Best to hold a virtual awards ceremony.

“This year’s award is not about celebration but giving recognition and support to hardworking culinary talents and teams,” William Drew, group editor of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, said during the award ceremony while sharing how the organization debated the best way to release this year’s list in the middle of the continuing coronavirus outbreak.

“Showing mutual respect is important at the moment as [this year’s award] is all about supporting Asia, so [let’s find] some positivity even in these dark days, stay connected and prepare for the recovery.”

Singapore’s Odette defended its No. 1 spot among the restaurants in Asia again this year, while The Chairman in Hong Kong took second place, after appearing on the list for the first time last year. Third place went to Tokyo restaurant Den.

“The annual award ceremony is more than just checking who’s in which place on the list,” Vice Chairman for Korea Choi Jung-yoon said of the event. “It offers a place where chefs get inspired by each other and make friends for future collaborations and communication, as it is rare to get chefs from around the world in one place at the same time.

“This time, the format was a little different because the awards were online, but we are happy that we used this year’s chance to further spread the word on Korean food.”

The ceremony was extra meaningful for Korea as veteran chef Cho Hee-sook was named the Best Female Chef in Asia, prior to the release of the top 50 restaurants in Asia Tuesday. It is the second time for Korea to have an individual chef nominated for a special category, after restaurant Toc Toc was given the One to Watch Award in 2017. Other than Cho, five others were given special individual awards: Yoshihiro Murata of Kikunoi in Japan took home the Icon Award; Prateek Sadhu of Masque in India was given the One to Watch Award; Sebastien Lepinoy of Les Amis in Singapore was honored with the Art of Hospitality Award; Yusuke Takada of La Cime in Japan was given the Chef’s Choice Award; and Natsuko Shoji of Ete was named Best Pastry Chef.

“This is the time we need to stay together,” said chef Cho. “I never expected to be honored with such an award as I spent years in the kitchen, but I hope this works as a chance to make people more curious about Korean food and experience it first hand.”

Cho’s name has spread throughout the region as many Korean chefs who had learned tips on how to explore and develop a variety of indigenous ingredients in dishes served at finer restaurants from her shared her lessons with chefs overseas. It became easier for international chefs to experience Cho’s culinary expedition accumulated over for about almost four decades after she acquired the restaurant Hansikgonggan in October. She has dedicated her life to turning classical recipes handed down for centuries into dishes that fit the tastes of modern-day diners to keep Korean traditions alive on the dining table.

In December, over a dozen chefs from countries near and far took time to learn about a staple of Korean dining known as banchan, or assorted dishes of seasonal items. Dubbed Banchan Road, the journey of international chefs including Vicky Cheng of Vea in Hong Kong, Richie Lin of Mume in Taiwan, Yusuk Takada of La Cime in Japan, was made into a video and played prior to the award ceremony at Hansikgonggan, where some people gathered to watch the livestream of the event together. Many of those who appeared in the video had not only participated in a cooking class taught by Cho, but had also dined at her restaurant to try out the ways she makes classical Korean dishes more modern.

Chef Kim Dae-chun of Toc Toc, which moved to a new location last year, was thrilled to rise up the ladder so much this year. He has recently opened two other finer style restaurants, Seventh Door and Tenjimon, alongside the more casual Corte.

“It looks like when you focus more on serving your customers better, the diners really feel that hospitality,” said Kim, who has strived to get more international recognition over the years. “It is all about patience and getting through times with constant efforts, and you will see the fruits of that work and get more energy to go forward.”

For more information about the list of the top 50 restaurants in Asia and other lists of restaurants around the world and in Latin America, visit theworlds50best.com and look for detailed explanations on the food served at each spot. The William Reed Media Group currently releases three lists - a world list, an Asia list and a Latin America list. While the Michelin Guide covers an extensive number of restaurants in each of the cities it publishes its guide book, the 50 Best series attempts to cover all of the restaurants in each region, with only the top 50 making the final list.

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