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Meet the Godmother of Korean Cuisine Chef Cho Hee-sook

Chef Cho Hee-sook currently heads up Michelin Star restaurant Hansikgonggan, in Seoul, where she specialises in Royal Court cuisine with an eight-course style menu that has been served up as far back as the Joseon dynasty. Known as the Godmother of Korean cooking, Chef Cho Hee-sook has been honing her craft for more than 40 years and is committed to mentoring the next generation of culinary stars in traditional cuisine. Her talents haven’t gone unnoticed. Honored with the Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2020, the award marked her position as one of the world’s top talents. More recently, she has been awarded the inaugural MICHELIN Mentor Chef Award in 2021.

Aspire Lifestyles: Who has influenced your cooking style or philosophy?

Chef Cho Hee-sook: I learned the basics of Korean food from Chairman Lee Mal-Soon of the Korean Traditional Food Research Association. Ms. Lee Mal-Soon has been studying noble and formal Korean cuisine for more than 35 years and is still passing down to young chefs. And Ms. Lee Mal-Soon’s teaching became the cornerstone of my culinary philosophy. She has made me realize the importance of keeping the Korean taste and style in the midst of the development and change of the times. While keeping the tradition of traditional Korean formal cuisine that I learned from Ms. Lee Mal-Soon, I have steadily studied how to implement my own cuisine that no one has ever tried.

AL: What do you want the world to know about the cuisine of your country and the cuisine of your restaurant?

CH: Hansikgonggan is a restaurant that keeps to the basics of Korean food. While making it as traditional as possible, we are doing a lot of research so that people around the world can enjoy it together.

We try to provide the familiar food for locals while using the various recipes such as boiling, baking, frying, or steaming, but we make the most taste from the ingredients without using excessive seasoning as the basic recipe of traditional Korean cuisine. We make this cuisine as simple and light as possible as opposed to modern strong flavored and spicy Korean food, as we keep to the basics of Korean traditional food.

I feel the necessity of restaurants like Hansikgonggan, which lead people to experience the reinterpreted traditional Korean food as fine dining, for foreigners who want to know Korean food and for Koreans who want to taste the new Korean cuisine. And I hope more people around the world can enjoy it.

AL: What is the most important value you teach your kitchen team?

CH: I always emphasize that as a cook, our team should always be proud of themselves and have a serious sense of responsibility. We should always cherish the environment as well as the guests who will eat our dishes.

Many people follow new trends. But there is no end. I’ve been cooking for over 40 years, and have tried many things, but the cooking eventually goes back to its own place. Therefore, it’s important to keep the basics, not to lose it.

AL: What has been your most memorable food destination (city/country)? Why?

CH: I visit Japan relatively often. I was able to experience the taste and service of artisan sprit both in the good restaurants which were planned and even in small restaurant on the street which I inadvertently visited.

AL: As the COVID pandemic has forced the industry to change on so many levels – what was the most important detail or aspect of service/experience for you that you wanted to keep the same upon reopening? What were the main things you felt you needed to change/adapt?

CH: Now that we know the hygiene rules and lifestyle to beat the COVID-19 virus, we need to keep up with it, so that COVID era shouldn’t be repeated. And we can deal with it promptly from experience even if another virus comes.

AL: Some Chefs we have seen take to supporting food banks, feeding those in need and truly taking an incredibly challenging time and finding ways to adapt and give back – do you think with these focuses in mind that the culinary industry will ever go back to the “way it was”?

CH: Observations, which predict that the world before and after COVID-19 will be different, are very dominant. It’s likely to divide into what remains as in the past or what needs to be changed. After all, humans are part of nature and need to be changed and adapt to change. The restaurant industry has also been moving fast to meet the trend of predicted changes.

It seems to be the trend to prepare for the mainstream of the online market and food delivery. There will be some crucial movements, however we will also have to consider the part of not accepting the quality or dissatisfaction from the food we get delivered. Since people don’t focus on eating only, rather have a strong social tendency to talk, gather, and share affection. Therefore, we cannot exclude the offline restaurant market where the taste and service are provided, so we really want to go. As for the online and offline composition of the restaurant market, I think it is difficult to affirm the percentage under the current situation.

AL: As a Chef at a top restaurant, you likely always go at a very fast pace. Did you enjoy the “downtime” of quarantine and what did you do to fill your time?

CH: We are repairing and supplementing various facilities that we had previously been unable to handle due to lack of time and manpower. We are preparing for the moment when it backs to normal by changing the interior and developing new menus to taste, so that customers can feel a brighter and cleaner atmosphere when they come back.