Thursday, July 08, 2010
Sabiru, a Korean restaurant in the Renaissance Hotel, Seoul, is one of a chain of Korean restaurants in four hotels in Seoul. Korean restaurants are becoming something of a rarity in hotels, and in order to maintain their presence, Sabiru makes an effort to present sophisticated Korean cuisine which can be enjoyed, not only by Koreans, but also by foreign tourists. As a result of these efforts, they won the grand prize in the World Korean Cuisine Competition held in New York last October, and to commemorate their victory, they have been running a promotion event presenting the same menu they produced for the competition for the public.
Among those who love Korean food, executive chef Brendan James Mahoney is one of the most prominent. He is now in charge of all of the kitchens at the Renaissance Seoul hotel, including Sabiru.
Before coming to Korea, Chef Mahoney was already recognized for his exceptional culinary skills and sense of style at famous resorts and the Marriott Hotel in Hawaii. As Hawaii is a popular tourist destination for people from all over the world and has an ethnically-diverse population, Chef Mahoney was naturally exposed to a wide variety of cuisines while working there. From his perspective as a cook, he describes the characteristics of Korean food this way: “In the technical sense, Korean food is generally cooked hard and fast. That is my immediate observation. Very high heat and quick cooking.”
Asked about his favourite Korean dish, Chef Mahoney surprisingly replied that he likes street food and particularly enjoys topokki (spicy stir-fried rice cakes). His first meal in Korea was not a fancy dinner in a hotel restaurant, but street food in Itaewon. He explained that street food gives you a perspective on the actual tastes of local people, and this can inform your cooking.
There is a reason he chose to got to Itaewon among other places. “The food in Itaewon is a little more diverse,” he explains. “It is a classic example of chef’s trying to target the audience. You see everything from tacos, Middle Eastern kabobs, and Korean classics. It is a fun environment and everyone is representing where they are from.” He recommended that newcomers to Korea should try topokki as a way to experience the vibrant street culture.
Beyond his love of street food like topokki, Chef Mahoney has a knowledgeable appreciation of Korean food that extends to more gourmet styles, such as Korean table d’hote. He explained the difference. “The charming point of luxury Korean food is the social aspect of the foods. It is very well handled in the production and this is carried through in the grace of the service of Korean servers,” he said. “For street foods it is just the raw street atmosphere that brings the charm. Huge selections of food and ample supplies of soju, makeolli and maekju make for some animated evenings.”
The Korean dishes that he feels most confident about making are galbi (beef short ribs), bulgogi (thinly-sliced marinated beef), and hobakjuk (pumpkin rice porridge), which he learned at Sabiru in the Renaissance Hotel. Explaining foreigners’ perceptions of different Korean dishes, he said, “Kalbi, bulgogi, and Korean barbecue are not a challenge to relate to. If you get something more extreme like hongeo (fermented skate, which has a very pungent smell), then foreigners will have a problem understanding how to enjoy the food.” In his opinion, the two ingredients that he feels hold the most promise for the globalization of Korean cuisine are Korean beef and ginseng. “I think some of the items like Hanwoo Beef could be on a menu all around the world with the right marketing. It is really beautiful and represents Korea in a very luxurious way. Ginseng is already in the mainstream of some more open countries. With cultures focusing more on health and longevity it is a great ingredient for marketing of foods.”
Finally, recalling the trouble he experienced in foreign restaurants, he emphasized the need to provide assistance to foreigners. “With the marketing of Korea food creating some understanding of classic Korean dishes there will be growth in the market, [it is important to have] some English available or pictures so foreigners can understand and are not afraid to enter the restaurant. Help them a little so they have a good experience in the restaurant. I think sometimes foreigners don’t know where to go and are a little intimidated if they can’t communicate. If you order one thing and get another, you get frustrated, too.”
In his free time, Chef Mahoney reads books about cooking and tries to learn more about Korean food and culture. With his new-found admiration for Korean street food and sauces, he has even made his own soft tofu and meju (compressed soy-bean block prepared for fermenting) on the KBS2TV Korean food program “Dimibang Challenge.”