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(Yonhap Feature) Seoul catches culinary spotlight in Asia

By Hannah Bae
(ATTN: Hannah Bae is one of four independent contributors to The Miele Guide. Contributors are not paid for their restaurant suggestions for the guide. The Miele Guide does not accept any advertising, sponsorship or free meals from the restaurants reviewed.)
SEOUL, Dec. 7 (Yonhap) -- Ask international gourmands to name the food capitals of Asia, and chances are they'll rattle off no-brainers like Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, cities with vibrant expatriate populations and a slew of upscale restaurants operated by acclaimed chefs.

   This year, Seoul joins these ranks, at least according to one regional restaurant guide.

   For the first time, one of Korea's restaurants, Pierre Gagnaire a Seoul, has been listed among Asia's Top 20 in The Miele Guide 2011-2012, a compilation of the continent's finest dining establishments that was released in November.

   Making its debut at No. 8, Pierre Gagnaire a Seoul was one of six new entries onto the Top 20 of The Miele Guide, named for its sponsor, the German cookware company Miele.

   "The arrival of these restaurants onto the Top 20 list may indicate the Asian diner's changing tastes, and a willingness to venture beyond the regular favorites, showing that the face of dining in Asia is visibly changing," said the guide's publisher, Singapore-based Ate Media, in a release.

   Pierre Gagnaire a Seoul rose in the ranks through a 15-week-long process in which Ate Media collected nominations from food writers in each of the 17 countries featured, then invited the public and restaurant critics from all over Asia to cast their votes.

Chef Julien Boscus of Pierre Gagnaire a Seoul (All photos are courtesy of Ate Media)

Interior of Pierre Gagnaire a Seoul

"I was very busy in kitchen, so I was not aware of it until one of my staff told me that our restaurant was in Asia's Top 20," the restaurant's head chef, Julien Boscus, 30, said from Seoul. Boscus had sent his chef de cuisine, Bong Jun-ho, to appear in his stead at The Miele Guide's annual gala dinner in Singapore, where the top 20 were announced.

   "I thought of my staff working hard in the kitchen," Boscus, a native of Aveyron, France, said of his reaction to the news. "I was very happy because it felt like we were recognized for the work we do every day."

   The restaurant has been acclaimed for Boscus's use of seasonal Korean ingredients interpreted in the French style.

   "I sometimes use omija (a tart red berry often brewed into a traditional tea), yuja (citron), ginseng and chili powder," Boscus said of the local ingredients he favors. "I also created kimchi a la Gagnaire, made with cabbage, white vinegar, lemon zest and a little bit of chili powder."

   Joe McPherson, founder of the Korean food blog ZenKimchi.com and one of the Korea contributors to the guide, praised the restaurant's approach.

   "The food knocked my socks off," he said. "Surprising flavor combinations. Pierre Gagnaire gets ingredients like kijogae (pen shell, a shellfish similar to scallops) delicately sears it and puts it with a delicate pea puree."

   This year's Miele Guide said Pierre Gagnaire's presence on the top 20 list reflected increasing interest in Korea's dining scene.

   "This also coincides with the popularity of Korean chefs in the media - from culinary shows featuring celebrity chefs from the country to the enthusiastic news coverage of chef-owner Jung Sik Yim's launch of Jung Sik in New York earlier this year," the guide read.

   With such excitement for Korean chefs, The Miele Guide fittingly awarded one of two culinary scholarships to one of the country's budding talents in the restaurant industry.

   Seoul-born Kim Ho-joon, 18, was named the winner of The Miele-At-Sunrice WSQ Scholarship at November's gala dinner in Singapore.

   The scholarships, one of which goes to a Singapore native, the other to a chef from one of the 16 other Asian countries featured in the guide, cover a 15-month course at At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, Singapore's only school for the culinary arts.

   "It is the biggest opportunity of my life and I hope to go forward and achieve my goal in becoming a truly great chef," Kim said.

Budding South Korean chef Kim Ho-joon (2nd from L), 18, accepts the Miele-At-Sunrice WSQ Scholarship 2011-2012 from Christopher Megel (L), CEO of At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy. From right, Tan Su-Lyn, director of Ate Media, the publisher of the Miele Guide, and Bing Leow, general manager of domestic retail operations for Miele Singapore

What's striking about The Miele Guide's Korea picks for this year is its emphasis on hotel dining. The top five restaurants listed in the Korea section came from one of two Seoul hotels -- Lotte Hotel, home of Pierre Gagnaire, and the Millennium Seoul Hilton.

   That came as no surprise to Kim, who interned in a kitchen at a Paris Hyatt before serving as a commis chef in the banquet kitchen of The Park Hyatt Seoul.

   Hotel dining is synonymous with fine dining in Korean culture, he said.

   Staff from both the Hilton and Lotte hotels echoed Kim's sentiments.

   "As more Korean citizens travel overseas, they are exposed to a variety of new cultures, tastes and cuisines and seek a similar international standard when they return to Korea," said Y.D. Kwak, PR manager of the Millennium Seoul Hilton. "Five-star hotels, such as the Millennium Seoul Hilton, provide this high standard."

   Kim Young-soo, Lotte Hotel's director of food and beverage, said the service at hotels distinguished their restaurants from independent dining establishments.

   McPherson, the food blogger, however, took a more critical approach.

   "I could guess a lot of reasons why hotels again dominated the top five," he said. "Maybe the hotels were just that good this year.

   "But also I suspect that this drive to gain international respect for Seoul's dining scene... has pushed the Korean journalists more towards what they perceive as world-class restaurants, snubbing independent Korean restaurants like Jung Sik Dang," McPherson said, referring in particular to the aforementioned chef Yim's original restaurant in southern Seoul.

   As chefs from Seoul's kitchens continue to draw more interest to the local culinary scene, they are sure to shape the future of Korean gastronomy.

   "Among the traditional dishes, I believe bulgogi (thin slices of grilled marinated beef), galbi (thicker cuts of grilled beef or pork), dumplings and grilled eel have potential with a slight change in their presentation," Boscus of Pierre Gagnaire said. "Beef and radish soup should also have appeal to the foreigners because of its light taste."

   Kim, the teenage culinary student, was more critical. "I don't really believe that Korean food can actually come over to Western people because it's spicy, it's too strong," he said.

   But he did single out one dish for its crossover appeal: samgyeopsal, thick, grilled slices of pork belly, which his uncles serve in their Seoul restaurant.

   "It goes really well with kimchi," he said. "It's not that strong, it's not that salty, and you can choose how to eat it... It's not like Western cuisine that's already served perfectly done."

   But McPherson, an avowed enthusiast of the bold flavors in Korean cuisine, encouraged locals to take pride in their food.

   "Pierre Gagnaire himself said that in order for Korean cuisine to globalize, Koreans needed to learn to love their own cuisine. It's a very tough concept to take hold, it seems," he said. "But it's still such an exciting time to be here at this moment in history."