In 2017 Jeong Kwan, a Zen Buddhist nun revered the world over for her cooking, introduced Korean temple food to global audiences on Netflix’s award-winning documentary series Chef’s Table. From her garden at the Baekyangsa temple, in Jeolla province 270km south of Seoul, she preserves and teaches the ancient traditions that have inspired the diet of the country’s monks and nuns throughout the centuries.
After years of training at the Mahayeon Temple Food Cultural Centre, chef Gu Jin Kwang has brought this rich – and largely unexplored – culinary heritage to Hong Kong at K11 Musea’s Soil to Soul. The restaurant, which adheres to the righteous natural order at the core of temple food, serves elevated plant-based dishes and abides by the ultimate monastic rule of avoiding the “five pungent vegetables” known as oshinchae – onions, spring onions, garlic, leeks and chives – traditionally believed to be a distraction from meditation, because of their impurities and pungent flavours.
“My dream was to do something new, something that nobody else had done before,” Gu tells me sitting at one of Soil to Soul’s tables surrounded by contemporary-chic minimalistic elements and traditional touches, such as the oblong-shaped bar reminiscent of a Buddhist temple. “In Hong Kong, there’s a lot of fine-dining and Michelin-star restaurants, but I don’t think any of them focuses purely on 100-percent plant-based food and definitely not on Korean vegetarian food. There’s still a misconception that vegetarian food, vegan in particular, is just bland vegetables, but it’s much more complex than that.”
Gu’s reinvented menu at Soil to Soul explores these complexities and plays with consistencies while staying true to the traditional premise that humans should only eat what’s essential to reduce waste and environmental pollution and respect the monasteries’ farm-to-table concept. With the exception of some Korean specialities and sauces, in fact, all the ingredients are locally sourced in Hong Kong to avoid, where possible, air-freight carbon emissions and make the most of what the land has to offer.
“I wanted to explore the old traditions at this restaurant. Nobody seemed that interested in preserving them”Gu Jin Kwang
Perhaps to the surprise of many, the flavours of Soil to Soul are anything but bland and make masterful use of techniques such as dehydration, fermentation and pickling to create memorable dishes that blend innovation and preservation. These practices originate from the daily activities of Buddhist temples, one of the oldest examples of a self-reliant community. “So far, customers have been very surprised as to how we can explore so many flavour profiles, like acidic, salty and sweet, just by using plant-based products in a creative way,” Gu explains.
Many of the restaurant’s dishes also represent the chef’s personal journey from internationally acclaimed kitchens to the temple-food workshops in Incheon run by another famous nun chef, Wookwan. French-inspired creations, such as mushroom terrine and tofu croquettes, are a testament to Gu’s time at the two-Michelin-star restaurant La Gavroche in London, where he worked with legendary chefs Michel and Albert Roux. At the time, he’d left his coastal hometown of Busan to enrich his culinary expertise and learn the French and European techniques that are conventionally associated with fine dining and garnered him international recognition. His love for fresh produce and aspiration to do something different, however, took him back to the very roots of his country’s ever popular cuisine.
“Nowadays, Korean food – like Korean culture – is very popular, but I think there are many more things to explore in depth. Everyone knows kimchi, but do they know what it is exactly? There are more than 100 types of kimchi and the process to make it is an integral part of Korean traditional culture that dates back to the first century BCE,” Gu explains passionately. “I wanted to explore the old traditions at this restaurant. Nobody seemed that interested in preserving them, either for Koreans or everyone else around the world.”
In addition to the heritage aspect, Gu also stresses the importance of elevating Asian products. Italy and France, he tells me, are famous for ingredients such as truffle and foie gras; Asia, too, he says “should focus more on local products we only have here and celebrate them. That’s what I’m trying to do as well.”
Soil to Soul’s elevated formula to preserve the past while educating diners through a unique culinary journey couldn’t be more contemporary. Now more than ever, shaped by the eco-friendly revolution that’s taking the food industry by storm, diners are looking for transparency and are embracing the idea of eating – and cooking – food that doesn’t harm the environment and nourishes the soul as well as the body.