Jeong Kwan Cooks at Le Bernardin

June 23, 2017

The Buddhist monk and celebrated chef, Jeong Kwan was in New York yesterday, cooking a meal to celebrate the winter Olympics in PeyongChang next year.

Eric Ripert has spoken with great reverence about the chef, so I’ve always been curious.  The Chef’s Table episode about her is very beautiful, and I was eager to experience one of her meals.

I was certainly not the only one; a great group of press people turned out to taste the chef’s vegan meal; Martha Stewart was sitting next to me, snapping away. She immediately fired off a few shots on Instagram, announcing the numbers as they came in.

We started with tiny porcelain cups of lotus flower tea: delicate, floral and fragrant, it’s one of those drinks that you taste once and never forget.

Then we were introduced to 15-year old soy sauce the monk brews herself; she urged us to have a spoonful before we began eating, and to use it liberally throughout the meal.  The sauce was dark, complex and mellow with a lingering flavor that echoed in your mouth long after the sauce itself was gone. I used it as dipping sauce for ganjang and bugak, the centerpiece of crisped seaweed (which had the robust and appealing flavor of fried fish tails),  balloon flower leaf, ailanthus (which is also known as “tree of heaven”), potato and shiso.

This was followed by a bowl of pretty little local leaves in a dressing that hinted at orange and spice., and then this grilled deodeok and deoduck with pine nut.

Deoduck is bonnet bellflower; the chewy root, splashed with gochujang, is a standard in Korea.  But that little ball of pinenut and shredded deoduck on the side was remarkable: simultaneously oft and slightly crisp, it was tinged with the taste of  sesame oil  The chef eschews all alliums – no garlic, no onion, no scallion – but she has no fear of either sweet or heat.  There was a touch of chile in almost every dish we ate, and she uses rice syrup and fruit to contrast the saline taste of soy.

A surprise package at each plate. As each little sphere of gangwon was opened up the fragrance of chestnut and shiitake leapt into the air, enveloping the table in the most sensual aroma.  Great fat juicy mushrooms had soaked up a luxurious broth of  soy, sesame, rice syrup and fermented berry juice; they were tangled into gingko nuts and jujubes. Hauntingly delicious.

Now waiters appeared bearing a black tray covered with little black bowls for each diner: Barugongyang.  The empty bowls were for soup and rice, which we passed around the table and served to one another. (I’m embarrassed to admit that our table neglected to wait for instruction and simply helped ourselves, putting the rice and soup into the wrong bowls.)

Starting at the bottom left:

BongPyeong which was translated as “mook with buckwheat.”

Mook, or muk, is a soft substance, with the texture of taro that can be made from almost any starchy substance.  This one was buckwheat topped with two year old kimchi, ailanthus, shiitake and cabbage.

DunNae: a little pancake constructed from  baby squash and wild sesame seeds and topped with a bit of squash. In contrast to the contemplative quietness of other dishes, this chewy, slightly spicy offering exploded on the palate like carnival food. A bit of excitement on the plate.

InJae: grilled burdock

Topped with sprouted daikon, plum and rice syrup, gochujang, chili power, sesame seed and sesame oil. Burdock is a bitter root to swallow; you either like it or don’t. If you don’t, all that seasoning won’t help.

ChoDang: pan-seared tofu with fermented sansho.

Tofu mans up and gets serious character.  Eaten slowly, you suddenly discovered a world of flavor in the dense, chewy white substance.

Daegwallyeong

Our old friend, cabbage kimchi.

SokChu: Lotus root water kimchi

Water kimchi is a Korean standard.  Not hot, this was crunchy slices of lotus root cooked in orange and plum syrup and persimmon vinegar.  The chef asked us to leave a bit of lotus root to clean our bowls at the end of the meal.  It felt like a sacrifice.

BangTae Mountain.

Named for a famous Korean mountain said to hold “the secret of ancient times,”  this sticky rice was mingled with Korean thistle, kidney beans, puffed corn and wild sesame oil.

Odae Mountain

Sip slowly. Think about it.  Tease out the flavor of mushroom, daikon, ginger, lotus leaf, jujube.  Note the hint of chile.  This is the entire meal in a single bowl: flavors that whisper instead of shout, ask that you listen carefully with all your senses.  A reminder of how much there is to see, hear and taste if only we will pay attention.

 

Postscript

Should you want to experience this Korean temple cuisine, one New York restaurant provides that opportunity.  I have to admit that I haven’t been in many years, but here’s my very old review of Hangawi.

 

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