As rare as anybody will find, Jeong Kwan is a Buddhist monk who also cooks out-of-this-world food.
Earlier this year, Jeong Kwan received Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’ prestigious Icon Award Asia 2022. We talk to the Korean Buddhist monk-turned chef who helped popularise temple cuisine.
For decades, Jeong Kwan used the Buddhist principles of healthy eating and zero waste to devise recipes for the Chunjinam Hermitage at South Korea’s Baegyangsa temple in the province of South Jeolla.
A centuries-old tradition preserved through Buddhist teachings, dynastic traditions and the everyday practices of rural communities, Korean temple cuisine champions sustainability and an intrinsic connection between our mind and our surroundings. Free from meat, fish, dairy and the so-called pungent spices (onion, garlic, green onions, spring onions and leeks), temple food uses ancient techniques such as fermentation and pickling to enrich the body and soul.
Jeong Kwan’s food reached the world stage when celebrated chef and fellow Buddhist Eric Ripert visited her temple and invited her to cook in New York for a few select guests in 2015. Since then, her holistic approach to cooking has garnered her global recognition and a dedicated episode on Netflix’s award winning Chef’s Table series in 2017.
Earlier this year, Jeong Kwan was awarded one of the most prestigious accolades in the culinary world: Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’ Icon Award Asia, joining star chefs such as Seiji Yamamoto and Yoshihiro Murata, yet doing so without any formal culinary training, a restaurant or actual customers.
Here, Jeong Kwan talks about a life dedicated to serving her temple and community through food and Buddhist practice.
In Conversation With Jeong Kwan
How was it to receive the Icon Award?
I’m extremely honoured. I want to thank the academy and Asia’s 50 Best. As you already know, I’m a monk, not a trained chef. I don’t have a set of recipes or a menu I follow, nor do I have a restaurant that people can visit, like previous recipients of the award.
However, I’m always happy to cook for others and share positive energy through food.
You’re a monk as well as a celebrated chef. How do you combine both?
I’ve been asked this many times over the years. However, whether it was a few years ago, or today, I’m the same. I haven’t changed and my heart towards cooking is the same. Everything I do, I give it my all, whether it’s cooking or speaking. I’ve met many people throughout my life and every person I meet or cook for, I always put my heart into what I do. Even with such accolades, I need to stay humble and not let pride into my heart. Genuine sincerity is how I greet every person I meet.
What’s the essence of temple food?
Temple food is the connection that brings physical and mental energy together. It’s environmentally friendly and respects and supports life. It’s about maximising the taste and nutrition from plant-based ingredients with limited seasoning or added condiments.
Temple cuisine is part of my Buddhist practice and the journey of finding oneself. People who cook and eat temple food are all on a journey to find out who they are. I think Korean temple cuisine connects people together and will continue to play that role.
Seasonal dishes that celebrate and respect your surroundings are at the core of your cuisine. How do you come up with new recipes?
I try to eat and use seasonal ingredients. Spring, summer, autumn and winter, the four distinct seasons of Korea each have their special characteristics and so do the ingredients that grow during each season.
Time is very important when it comes to enjoying the ingredients to the fullest in regard to nutrients and taste. I like to encourage people to understand the ingredients when cooking. In order to do this, it’s important to know the lifecycle of each product. I understand that not everyone can grow their own ingredients. However, I would like to recommend trying to plant one or two seeds to grow at home. It can be a pepper or even a leafy green. By seeing and experiencing the lifecycle of that ingredient, you’re able to understand it more.
Now more than ever, the world needs to reduce meat consumption to tackle climate change. What advice can you give to make the transition towards a flexitarian diet easier?
The most important thing is to find balance. To do this, understanding what you eat is key. Becoming one with your ingredients enables you to fully use everything, from the root to the stem and leaves. Identifying what seasoning and condiments we need to balance them is also important. In Korea, we use fermented and aged sauces, such as doenjang (bean paste) and ganjang (soy sauce). This helps to balance each dish. By understanding what you’re cooking with, you can also understand each product’s energy and create a positive cycle that promotes life and is sustainable. For protein, I use a lot of shiitake mushrooms, radish and lotus roots.
If everyone can make small changes, it will be better for the world and the universe will achieve a more harmonious balance.
Through food, you connect with people and share Buddhist teachings. How has that impacted people visiting the temple?
We have a temple-stay programme at Baekyang, so people can come and experience the life of a monk. As part of the temple stay, people can choose to do a vegan cooking class where I talk about food and Buddhist teachings. There’s a continuous interest in the temple stay and we always have people wanting to come. It’s great that people show an interest in visiting us and that I can connect with them through food.
How has temple food evolved over the years?
For me, not much has changed. I still have the same heart as I did when I first joined the temple. I focus on my practice and I still cook some of the same dishes I made as a young monk. Of course, my kitchen has changed and some of the ingredients have changed also, however my heart is the same. My thoughts on having to know your ingredients when you cook have been with me throughout the years. Respecting all forms of life, being aware of global warming and striving to be environmentally friendly are concepts embedded in my everyday practice.
“We have a temple-stay programme at Baekyang, so people can come and experience the life of a monk”Jeong Kwan
What have you learned since you began your journey with food?
To me, cooking isn’t about being fancy or showing off difficult skills, but becoming one with the ingredients. When I’m cooking, I think of the ingredients as if they’re a part of me. When using water and fire to cook vegetables, I feel like we become one. It’s more important to create harmony than learning technical skills. The heart and soul put into the food will be received by the people who eat it and create a positive impact.
My parents taught me to be frugal from a very young age. I learned not to generate leftover food and take good care of everyday things, and also to be moderate with all resources and restrain myself from using too much.
After I became a monk, my upbringing was helpful, as monks are able to practise thanks to donations. Since it’s by the grace of the donations that we’re able to continue our practice, it’s important to be restrained and appreciate how precious everything is, including food.
This is also a part of Buddha’s teachings from 2,600 years ago. If we honour life, we should not let even one grain of rice go to waste. All ingredients have life and we must respect this. This is why we only take as much food as we need and eat everything, including the water that cleans the bowl at the monastery.
We can all try to use ingredients wholly. For example, roots and tough leaves can be used to make broths. I also try to eat vegetables and fruits with the skin on. When cooking, try to remember how the ingredients came from the greatness of nature and also the farmers’ efforts.
Temple food is a philosophy more than a set of recipes. How can it be applied to other areas of life?
Not long after I joined the monastery, I made noodles for the other monks. When they told me they enjoyed my food, I felt joy and wanted to continue cooking. I view temple cuisine as part of my practice and I believe it’s the link that connects physical and mental energy for practising monks. So, I continue to focus on making food that can help monks in their practice.
What’s next for your journey as a chef ?
As a monk, I’m always practising asceticism. I think practising is an important part of the journey to find myself. I have a hope that we can live a life that honours and respects nature and our environment, promotes a sustainable lifestyle and has a positive effect on climate change and saves lives. In order to do this, I need to change. Small actions start from myself and I hope I’ll be able to share this with more people around the world, including the wonderful chefs in the Asia’s 50 Best community.
This story first appeared on Prestige Hong Kong.