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The first-place winner of the recent Korean Sensation Culinary Contest at The Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley campus is neither a traditional North American college student nor a stranger to Korean cuisine.

A native of Montreal, Stephen Neumann came to culinary school to pursue a second career. He had spent 11 years teaching English as a second language in Busan and Seoul, South Korea.

Tthe 38-year-old student at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., is in second semester of his program. His externship is coming up in January.

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Stephen Neumann introduces his Koreanized interpretation of Pate Chinois to the judges. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)

Stephen Neumann introduces his Koreanized interpretation of Pate Chinois to the judges. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)

According to Neumann, there were more than 200 submissions from the three of CIA campuses in the States (Hyde Park, N.Y.; San Antonio, Texas and St. Helena). Students were given a list of five Korean ingredients and told to incorporate at least two into the final dish.

Obviously, the $7,000 scholarship from the Korea Agro Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation (aka aT) will come in handy as Neumann continues his culinary studies at the CIA. ZenKimchi Food Journal talked with him about his inspiration for the fusion dish, background with Korean food and insights on the future of Korean cuisine overseas.

ZenKimchi Food Journal: What is your food vision?

NEUMANN: I haven’t to discover that. My passion for this came from working in a kitchen. I have a lot to learn. That is why I’m here. Going into this a little older, I have experienced cuisines from all over Asia, especially Korea.

I lived in Busan for a couple of years and then to Seoul and Anyang. I taught ESL for 11 years there before coming to the USA to study culinary arts.

Yangchigi pie

Stephen Neumann garnishes his yangchigi (Korean for “shepherd”) pie. This dish received quite a bit of love from the judges. aT Center Vice President Yoo Chun Sik said, “It’s a bit playful. The sweet and spicy play well in this dish.” (Tammy Quackenbush photo)

What inspired your winning dish?

NEUMANN: It comes from my mother’s French-Canadian background. It was a staple in my home. It’s simple, nice, easy to make. I love the sweet potato–kimchi combination.

My mother never uses lamb in her pâté chinois. But if I’m doing a shepherd’s pie, I wanted to be as authentic as possible. Lamb is a popular meat in China but not in Korea. The bulgogi sauce worked well with the lamb. I didn’t overload it with bulgogi sauce, but it balanced the edge that comes with lamb.

What Korean food blogs or Korean chefs did you study to prepare for this contest?

NEUMANN: I came up with the idea for the dish when the contest began. I submitted this concept and one other, and the shepherd’s pie was accepted. It was just an idea in my mind.

He told ZenKimchi he didn’t start working on the recipe until after it was accepted for the scholarship contest.

What are your favorite cuisines, beside Korean?

NEUMANN: I have been a fan of Mediterranean food. There’s a huge variety on offer: Southern France, Italy, Greece, North Africa. I don’t know enough about Mediterranean food, but I’m open to learn more.

Asian-wise, I was blown away by Vietnamese food. I love the freshness of the greens and the heat. I fell in love with Korean food immediately. There are very few things I have not tried yet.

How do you see the future of Korean-American cuisine?

NEUMANN: In North America and Europe, there is a lot of potential. Eleven years ago before I left North America for Korea, there was little interest in Korean food at all. Still, it’s a vague concept to people, but they love Korean barbecue. North Americans have a singular vision of what Korean food is, but that is going to change. It’s not just going to be Korean barbecue that people will talk about in the future.

The concept of fermentation has taken North America by storm. Korean food will become more popular. I would like to see more Korean restaurants open. They haven’t caught up with the passion or the demand for it.

Living in Korea, some of the humble aspects of the food like the kimchi jjigae and the side dishes — I love that simplicity. It didn’t need any flair to heighten it. It is a cuisine that can be elevated and taken in so many directions.

What kind of beverage do you recommend drinking with Korean food?

NEUMANN: With my dish, it is pub food. Having a stout, a pint of beer, with shepherd’s pie works well on a lot of levels. The beer is refreshing after the heat of the food itself.

My wife is in the accelerated wine program at CIA Greystone. We have started drinking some wine with our Korean meals. There are wines that go very well with Korean food too.

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