Interview with Asia's Best Female Chef 2020 from Seoul, Cho Hee-Sook of Hansikgonggan: On gender roles and Korean cuisine
Age is a number
It almost sounds a tad bit cryptic when we speak of awards like Asia's Best Female Chef from Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, the same sentiment behind a dedicated day to celebrate women — with International Women's Day that falls on March 5. But for the most part, the most important takeaway is that these initiatives spark change, hope, and empowerment for women, whether it be in the workplace, family, and in their own skin.
This year, Asia's Best Female Chef is none other than chef Cho Hee-Sook of Hansikgonggan in Seoul, South Korea. A chef that's been around long enough to attain a moniker of the Godmother of Korean cuisine. She made her bones in some of Seoul's most prestigious hotel kitchens before being appointed executive chef at the South Korean embassy in Washington DC, USA. She then opted to spend the next phase knee-deep in research, playing a mentor role to many young talents. Despite being in her twilight years, she embarked on the next chapter of her career — with the opening of her very own restaurant, Hansikgonggan that specialises in royal court cuisine. Here's where you can find century-old dishes dating back to the Joseon dynasty that have been reinvented through the medium of fresh, modern ingredients and fine plating. Her culinary legacy has remained rooted in Korean cuisine, and will continue with her fervent desire to retain and honour tradition.
Below, we chat about royal court cuisine, her ever-evolving approach to cooking, and gender roles in the kitchen.
Tell us about Hansikgonggan and what can diners hope to experience there?
Hansikgonggan is a restaurant that preserves the foundation of Korean food, with a refined approach. Personally, it's also a space where I can reflect on various experiences working with Korean cuisine for the past 40 years. We are using as many traditional cooking techniques as possible in line with our research of the ways of diners of today, and how they enjoy Korean food. The restaurant also has a clear view of Changdeokgung palace, just so one can fully immerse in Korean grub and culture altogether.
Why was the focus on royal court cuisine? And how does Hansikgonggan deliver it?
To really show the world what authentic Korean food is about. I felt a restaurant like Hansikgonggan was needed for foreigners who would like to know about Korean food and for Koreans who want to experience noble Korean food, so they can experience the interpretation of traditional Korean food in a fine dining setting. I opened the restaurant in my twilight years, so I wanted to cook my own food with my own style, not food to meet the standards set by a company. I want to share Korean food with the world, healthy Korean food cooked with seasonal ingredients, as well as fermented food that is prepared with time, so that people can take a moment amidst their hectic schedules by tasting slow food.
How has Korean cuisine evolved through the years? And how did you adapt to it?
At the beginning of my career, it was very difficult to try new things — breaking away from tradition was discouraged. But as time went by, Korean food started to fuse with Western food, and modern ways started to spread rapidly, which was led by the globalisation of Korean gastronomy. I'm used to relating every subject and circumstance with my food when I think. And as they all build up, they manifest as an inspiration when it's needed. Especially when I get information about food, I ask myself extensively, how I will do it in my own way? Is there any better way to do it? It is how I come up with new cooking techniques and recipes.
How do you keep your culinary skills and techniques relevant to the modern palate, despite being in the industry for so long?
I preserve traditional Korean flavours through seasoning and cooking techniques, while also incorporating new ingredients. I also execute Korean style and nuance through plating and presentation, converging all these details and coming up with new dishes.
The topic of female chefs taking the lead in professional kitchens — is that still an issue of prejudice in South Korea? And what do you think of it?
The fact that we have an award for Asia's best female chef to drive awareness proves that being a successful female chef in the kitchen is not easy. Chefs are required to be physically strong and energetic. Not only do you need cooking techniques and creativity to develop new menus, but also personality, artistry, and the capability to run the kitchen. Maybe female chefs are not physically as strong as male chefs. But I don't think there are any other things that limit women because they are women. It should be about how to be a good chef, and not about gender. I will always support and strive for a life that believes in self-actualisation while enjoying the aspect of making food that gives health and consolation to others.
Do you have any certain rules in the kitchen that you stick by through the years as a chef?
I always keep my ingredients and cooking utensils very clean because it's for our guests. And I emphasise not to waste any ingredients. It's important to be trained as a chef who does not harm the earth.
After claiming this achievement, what's next for yourself and Hansikgonggan?
I will continue to work tirelessly to think of a better future for Korean food. I hope I can put all these experiences together. So this can be useful to someone who needs it in the future.