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The first starred restaurants for the first Michelin Seoul Red Guide have been announced. HT to Thierry Berno for this.

3 stars

라연 Rayeon

가온 Gaon

2 stars

Pierre Gagnaire

곳간 Gotgan

권숙수 Kwon Suk Su

1 star

Zero Complex

정식당 Jung Sik Dang

Mingles

Votre Maison

Soigné

24 seasons (24 절기)

Kojima

Dining in Space

L’amitié

Ristorante Eo

발우공양 Baru Gongyang

보름쇠 Boreum Sui

Bicena

Alla Prima

Yu Yuan

큰기와집 Keungiwa Jip

하모 Hamo

진진 Jin Jin

품 Poom


Immediately it had the Seoul foodie community in an uproar. Not just scratching their heads. One Korean foodie I know said what I first thought, “Fucking Cho Tae-kwon.”

Cho Tae-kwon

You may remember my rants about this yangban blowhard. He told a friend of mine personally that he alone was responsible for Korean food’s globalization success. He’s the guy who believes that different social classes of diners shouldn’t mingle in the same restaurant. He believes that Korean food should be promoted to the elite in societies because the masses will follow what they do. Basically, if you see Donald Trump eating bibimbap at his desk, then you will too. Imagine every cartoonish stereotype of arrogant aristocratic blue blood, and that’s Cho Tae-kwon.

He is the owner of Gaon and Bicena, which have just been awarded three and one stars respectively. Longtime readers of ZenKimchi will remember that Gaon was one of the worst fine dining experiences of my life. It’s the poster child for everything wrong with Korean concepts of fine dining. They just took basic Korean food, made it a little prettier, and jacked up the price. Their wine list of supermarket fare was jacked up even more than should be legally allowed. The service made us feel like peons for even stepping our grubby feet into their shrine–even though we were guests of a prominent New York Times travel writer at the time. That writer still laughs at how horrible that place was when I bring it up.

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AND THIS GOT THREE STARS???

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(I didn’t have a decent camera in those days.)

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This is proof to anyone who has been following the Seoul restaurant world for the past decade that there is some serious corruption or incompetence (or both) going on behind the scenes. Cho Tae-kwon is extremely status obsessed. Koreans already have a reputation for being obsessed with status. Mr. Cho takes this to the extreme.

I know for a fact that chaebol (Korean conglomerates) and other business executives were actively lobbying Michelin to make a Seoul guide. A vice president of one of the chaebol bragged about it while I sat next to him at a dinner. Other people at the table laughed it off, including native French and Italian restaurateurs. They said that Seoul doesn’t have any three star quality restaurants, and what would be the use of bringing it here? The executive said that it would increase the prestige of Korean cuisine.

It looks like the Michelin Guide has suffered through the same corruption as any Olympics scandal. My ex-partner at my BBQ pub said offhand one evening, when I confronted him about his sleazy tactics to promote the pub, “You gotta cheat to get ahead. That’s the Korean way.”

No. No, it’s not.

But it is how a lot of that generation thinks. Some people who know Michelin restaurants in Europe say right away that Seoul having any three star restaurants is fishy enough. But having Gaon getting three stars and Bicena getting one star? This puts the spotlight on Cho Tae-kwon as being the Choi Sun-sil of the Seoul restaurant world. This year’s guide and the Bib Gourmand both look like lists thrown together by Korean businessmen.

Cho Tae-kwon and Michelin

That said, there are some foodie faves in the one star category. Many believe that they deserve two stars. But, you know, I’m sure Mr. Cho wouldn’t have it that way.

ADDENDUM

Since I first posted this, I’ve been contacted by a few press agencies about what I said. I need to clarify that this is all speculation. That’s why there’s a question mark in the title. I have no solid proof of anything. I’ll just give you this analogy.

There is a race coming up. There’s a person you know from a rich family who always wears expensive sportswear, but you never see him training. He acts like he’s the expert on running, but when you’ve seen him run, he runs with floppy hands. You can tell he’s not as well trained or works as hard as the other athletes. But he has good connections with sports related companies and even the organizers of the race.

The day of the race, he joins the others. On your mark, get ready, GO!! They run. The rich guy has a new set of state-of-the-art clothes, but he still runs with the floppy hands. They run into the woods. You can’t see how the race goes in there. On the other side of the woods, the rich guy suddenly comes out ahead and wins.

Wouldn’t it be the logical to question what went on in the woods?

This is not a story where Rocky beats the odds and wins. This is a story where the arrogant villain wins, and you don’t see how.

The generation and social circles Mr. Cho comes from has this great obsession with status, particularly with what their notion of international prestige is. Bringing in international sporting events, from the 1988 Summer Olympics to the 2002 World Cup to the 2018 Winter Olympics to every little rollerblading and minor international event in between–they believe this lifts Korea’s status in the world. Anything international with rankings is something they worship. It drives people like Cho crazy that people would plop down a lot of money for Japanese sushi and not for Korean food. It’s all about money and prestige. You could say it’s a form of cultural penis envy. I talk about this in my Y2Y Marketing post. The Michelin Guide is one of many. You can see in the recent quotes in news articles that this was their goal. They thought that bringing the Michelin Guide here, through any means possible, somehow would lift the prestige of Korean cuisine in the world. As one article quoted the chef, it would make Korean cuisine more “approachable.”

That line of thinking infuriates me. It’s an old Korean stereotype of foreigners that Korean culture and food is too mysterious and unique for outsiders to understand. So they make places like Gaon to make it “approachable” for foreign outsiders. When was the last time you heard someone say, “You gotta try this restaurant. The food is so APPROACHABLE!”

The Gaon may have changed, but it seems to me that their approach and mindset have not.

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