When the Michelin Guide arrived in Seoul last November in search of more restaurants to add to its constellation, Poom Seoul was an inevitable first stop. Having given up her career as a journalist to devote herself to studying banga, a traditional Korean cuisine once exclusively reserved for nobility, Chef Young-hee Roh has swapped the traditional table into a more contemporary plate-by-plate affair, focused on using the freshest domestic ingredients that change with the incoming season. This democratic approach to historically elite fare has attracted gourmands from across the globe.
I took the opportunity to speak to Chef Roh for a deeper look at how she hopes to bring Korean food to more people – at home and abroad – and to understand more about what the cuisine has to offer in the realm of haute cuisine.
How did it feel to be awarded a Michelin star in November 2016?
The restaurant has been open for nine years so it was really a big boost to keep me going when I’m exhausted.
What is the philosophy behind traditional banga cuisine?
Korean banga cuisine was originally exclusively served to the yangban nobility and relatives of the court. It is considered luxurious and dignified fare. In those days, each diner had their food served to their personal tables. The size of the table is slightly larger than the size of the personal tablemat.
How do you take elements of that cuisine and translate it into a contemporary dish?
I worked to translate the food into a course format so that the cold food would be eaten cold and warm food eaten warm. Because of the size of these traditional tables, there is a limit to the size and shape of the bowls I can use. I chose to use a large bowl compared to the amount of food in order to enhance the beauty of the margins and to emphasise the visuals of the food.
I also think that it is important to debone fish for example. It’s not only easier for those that are cooking to do this but it also minimises waste. Korean cuisine is most well-known for its taste, so while I altered some ingredients, recipes and presentation, it was important to preserve the same flavour.
You were a journalist prior to opening Poom Seoul. Why did you make the switch and does your background influence any of your decisions at the restaurant?
I wanted to go study food styling in 1996 and was preparing to go to Japan to do so but before I went, I thought to myself, “How much do I really know about Korean food?” Coincidentally, my friend introduced me to Kang In-hee, an expert in Banga cuisine, so I stayed and studied with him for five years about a variety of Korean cuisines and the attitude required to deal with delicate materials.
I think as a food stylist, it helps to also have a strong ability to plan ahead, which is something I learnt as a magazine editor. It also gave me a certain insight that really helped me promote the restaurant through media.
I know that the menu changes every month. How do you decide what to include and how to include it?
We devise the menu based on what ingredients are most seasonal. The hardest part is looking for the new, seasonal ingredients themselves. It’s not easy but I don’t want to serve the same dishes to regular patrons.
For example, sea bream, dodok, leek and crab are best in the spring. I tend to switch to croaker, which is a type of fish, abalone, chicken, cucumber and zucchini come summer. Then for autumn, I use mushrooms prolifically – matsutake, shiitake are just two of many. Chicken, beans, root vegetables like lotus root and burdock are also seasonal. In winter, I use beef, radishes, blowfish, and cabbage.
That’s a brief outline but there are more and when I travel I like to check out what other Korean chefs are using to create their dishes.
We’ve just tried the delicious autumn menu. Could you tell me more about it and how each course ties in with the other?
As I said, we use a lot of mushroom in autumn. In the dishes you tried, we finely sliced pine mushroom so that the diner can get a greater sense of the pine pollen. We filled shiitake mushroom with shrimp and fried it. Nungi mushrooms are seasoned and then drenched in beef broth to be boiled in a hot pot.
For winter, the menu is composed of various hot-pot soups, which my team makes by wrapping various spices and boiling that in beef broth.
I try to create a connection in the meal by starting with a clear soup dish followed by a cold refreshing salad. Then I begin adding richness to the meal with an appetizer before plunging the diner into a rich cornucopia of flavour with a meat of some sort. The finishing touch is usually a clean hot plate followed by a sweet dessert.
The restaurant is decorated very consciously to convey elements of Korean culture alongside the food. There’s the beautiful chandelier of sewing discs depicting traditional Korean life and the stone basin with lilies in the water.
I want Korean food to be conveyed properly and to elevate local cuisine. The food takes into account the softness, depth, and warmth of taste. All of that is brought together on one table so I want the décor to complement and reflect that.