NOTE: I’m continuing this because someone I recently met said he really enjoyed the first few chapters and wanted to read more.
Promoting Korean Food
There is a vocal and powerful minority of Korean food promoters who think that Korean cuisine needs to appeal to the expensive fine dining crowd in order to be successful. They use the argument that people follow what the upper classes and the governing classes do. So if government officials and CEOs eat fancy Korean dishes, then everyone else will do the same.
Stop and think on how ridiculous that sounds. What century are these people from? When was the last time you ate something because you saw a government official eating it?
The very beginnings of the Hansik campaign concentrated on this model. They held gala dinners for U.S. Congress members. They promoted expensive royal court cuisine. They spent lots of money on exclusive dinners that shut out most of the foodie community.
They did all this when the world was going into one of its largest recessions in modern history. When people were losing their jobs and couldn’t afford to eat out, Hansik promoters thought they could woo them with Gujeolpan (Nine-sectioned Dish).
Immediately it showed that they weren’t interested in promoting Korean food for the sake of promoting Korean food. They were doing it for status. They wanted to impress others. They were envious that diners were paying lots of money to dine in high-end Japanese restaurants and not in Korean ones. When you’re more concerned with charging high prices than the quality of the food itself, you shouldn’t be in charge of promoting Korean food.
Succinctly, this was a classic example of one exclusive class wanting to impress another exclusive class. They want to be in their exclusive club. It was yangban to yangban marketing, or Y2Y marketing. It’s difficult to believe that there are still people who hold such aristocratic views that died after the French Revolution. And to think that they thought this attitude would work in America, a country that was founded as an antithesis to aristocracies and has a tradition of anti-elitism.
Pretension vs. Pleasure
A few years ago, I went to the restaurant of one of these Y2Y promoters. It was known as Korea’s answer to fine dining. I was the dinner guest of a travel writer for The New York Times. We made reservations, and I showed up a little early. I was very impressed by the plates. The owner was also famous for his pottery works. The tables had white tablecloths. My party arrived. We were given menus and a wine list. The first thing the Times writer noticed was how overpriced the wine was. He had traveled the world and knew wine lists, and he was laughing at how high the middling supermarket wines were priced. That was a sign of bad things to come.
The prices on the menu were astounding. We have no problem with paying high prices for good food, but it has to be stellar food. There actually was a Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken Soup) on the menu that cost almost W300,000. We didn’t order that, but we found a few items that we felt would give us a good idea of what the restaurant served.
The first course was Scallop Muchim. What came to the table was strings of shaved leeks in a cloyingly sweet Vinegared Gochujang. We couldn’t find the scallops. We ordered the dish because we wanted scallops, not leeks and gochujang. After some searching, we found two paper thin slices. This W18,000 dish tasted no different than side dishes at a common Korean fish house. As the meal progressed, the dishes got better. Yet they were no different than food you would get at a local mom-and-pop restaurant. They looked prettier, but their taste wasn’t impressive. The only big difference was the price and the snooty overly formal service.
Now, you would think that you’re paying these high prices for the service and atmosphere. Well, the atmosphere was nice. Yet the service was like the worst caricatures of stuffy French waiters from movies. They did not make us feel welcome. They made us feel like we were intruders in their private domains. We felt highly uncomfortable the entire meal. Then they did the unforgivable. When we had just received our desserts and coffee, they told us we had to leave soon because it was ten o’clock and they were closing. This is something that I would hear at a McDonald’s. This is unheard of at a restaurant where patrons spend W100,000 per person. When I worked in restaurants in America, guests were allowed to stay as long as they wanted so they could relax and finish their drinks. They were not shooed out the door as soon as they received their desserts.
The owner of this restaurant said that his restaurant should be the model for how Hansik could conquer the world. He had a noveau riche notion of how wealthy people ate in fine dining restaurants. He put in the white tablecloths, pricey menu, and well-dressed waitstaff. Yet he never understood why people went to fine dining restaurants. It wasn’t to impress other wealthy people. It was to relax. To be pampered. To feel welcome. To eat extraordinary foods. His restaurant did none of that.
Contrast that with a restaurant I went to in New York City, Eleven Madison Park. It has been consistently rated as one of the top five restaurants in Manhattan. I’m not one of the super rich lawyers that usually dine there. I’m just a writer from Korea. And I wanted to splurge and treat myself to a nice meal. So I made a reservation online before going on the plane to New York. I dressed nicely in a jacket and actually was nervous to go there. Fine dining always intimidates me, no matter how many times I do it.
When I walked in, the person at the door said, “Hello, Mr. McPherson. How was your flight from Korea?”
Now, keep in mind that I was nervous. I was by myself in one of New York’s top restaurants. I expected that snooty service. But it was just the opposite. The staff there was warm. Warm. They made me feel like I was their guest and that they wanted me there. The maitre d’ even came by to have a pleasant conversation with me. The head bartender came by to introduce their special cocktails, and he even had stories for each cocktail. I asked for their special martini, and he made it tableside with sharp precision. The whole time, he didn’t give a frown. He smiled, joked, told stories, and asked about my background. When my courses came, the cooks themselves brought them over and explained what each one was. And the food was unique, beautiful, and most importantly, tasted good. It was food I could get nowhere else, which is why people go to great restaurants. The wait staff did not interrupt me, nor did I see them interrupt anyone else. It was Chuseok that day, and a Korean daughter was taking her mother out for a nice meal. They sat next to me. They were truly enjoying themselves. I didn’t see that at the fine dining restaurant in Korea. The restaurant in Korea was cold, and people just went there to show off their wealth. Contrast that with this restaurant in Manhattan. It was much more luxurious than the one in Korea. The staff was warm and welcoming. The food was unique and tasty. And in the end, the check was slightly more than $100 but was a great value for what I got.
Korean food as status symbol
That, my friends, is what fine dining is supposed to be. It’s expensive, but there’s a reason for this expense. Great food. Great service. Great memories. The Y2Y promoters miss this point entirely. Instead of starting out by promoting the great foods that everyday Koreans enjoy, they promoted Gujeolpan and Shinseolleo (Royal Hot Pot). Do real Koreans eat those dishes on a regular basis?
The reason they promote it is purely for status. They don’t care that it doesn’t taste nearly as good as everyday Korean food. They don’t care that average Americans can’t find it in restaurants. They don’t care that average Americans can’t make that at home. They just felt that Korean food should be a tool to impress other aristocrats. This feeling is infectious in Korean upper classes.
For example, I graduated from a prestigious boarding school in my high school years. Recently, it has become popular with Korean parents sending their sons to study overseas. My school’s administration regularly comes to Seoul to meet the parents and to recruit new students. Many of these administrators are my old teachers and friends. The parents they meet are wealthy because the school is expensive. I met one of these administrators, an old friend of mine, at a Seoul hotel for drinks one evening. I asked him how we was enjoying the food in Korea. He rolled his eyes and let out a deep sigh.
“I’m so tired of Hanjeongsik!”
Every day the wealthy parents were insisting on impressing him by taking him out for expensive Hanjeongsik. I understand that to Koreans it’s a luxurious meal. But to my friend and the administrator that was with him, it was bland and boring compared to the Korean food he had wanted to eat. He badly wanted to go for a classic Korean BBQ. The other administrator that was with him had a son who was teaching English in Seoul. So he just told the Korean parents he couldn’t go out to eat anymore. He was going to spend time with his son. Part of the reason was that he was burned out on Korean fine dining.
It has surprised and disappointed foreigners like myself who love Korean food to see Hansik promoters ignore the foods that foreigners truly love in order to impress foreign yangban (who aren’t impressed by those foods either). Instead of courting the real thought leaders in the food community, chefs and food writers, they went after CEOs, politicians, and mainstream media. In spite of all this money being spent to promote Gujeolpan to U.S. Senators, it has fallen flat. It’s not popular. What has gotten popular is Korean fried chicken, Korean-Mexican street foods, Korean-style frozen yogurt, bibimbap, and good old fashioned Korean BBQ.
The fact that Korean BBQ has been ignored is the greatest crime of all! The entire world loves barbecue. Yet I have heard promoters say that they don’t promote barbecue because it’s not high class enough. Well, you know what happens? If you don’t promote it then someone else will. In New York a Japanese izakaya opened and received great raves from The New York Times and other food critics. What was it serving? Gobchang Gui (Grilled Instestines). If Hansik promoters don’t start promoting the foods that people love the most, others will take it and promote it as their own.
Ashamed of Korean food
Are Korean elites ashamed of their own cuisine? I have noticed that the types of food they promote tend to look more Japanese than the foods I see in Korea every day. They’re pretty foods but also bland foods—like many Japanese foods. Hansik promoters envy Japanese restaurants that charge high prices.
One luxury hotel in Seoul experimented with a fine dining Hansik menu. They invited food writers and food bloggers to try it out. I loved the food. It was a modern interpretation of Korean cuisine that was whimsical, gorgeous, and full of flavor. After the meal, I talked to a famous Korean powerblogger. He said he wasn’t impressed by the meal.
“It tasted too Korean.”
This is the type of pretension that frustrates me so much. It revealed how ignorant this famous powerblogger was. On his website he raves about modern French foods. Yet he never realizes that the French cuisine he’s so impressed with is just modern interpretations of traditional French peasant cuisine. That’s exactly what this Seoul hotel’s Hansik menu was. It treated Korean cuisine the same way it treated French cuisine. But these yangban Korean powerbloggers hate their own cuisine.
This is the heart of the problem. Yangban Hansik promoters, from the beginning, didn’t think of why they wanted to promote Hansik. It started out as just a way to impress other yangban. And they were using the country’s treasury to do this. This was dangerously idiotic since they took an approach that had never worked, especially during a recession. Did Chinese food become popular in Korea through fine dining? Did Italian, American, Indian, or even Japanese cuisine find success from that approach? No, they became popular through sweet and sour pork, pizza, hamburgers, curry, and cheap sushi. The fine dining came later.
Even when there is great Korean fine dining, it is met with suspicion overseas. One of Korea’s best restaurants and most talented chefs opened an outpost in New York City. Despite positive reactions from diners, the New York dining press criticized it for being too upscale and too expensive. (Postscript: It now holds two Michelin stars.)
There is room for Korean fine dining, and it is starting to take hold. Yet it has been foolish to lead with it. Hansik promoters should stop hating their own cuisine. They need to embrace the heart of Korean cuisine and figure out why people like it. In America, we say people need to “play to their strengths.” Korea’s strengths are in its basic everyday foods—its barbecue, its spicy dishes, its peasant cuisine. Those speak to people’s stomachs—yangban or not. Don’t lose sight and think of Hansik promotion as a way to promote an elitist image. That will fail.
French food is famous the world over for its sophistication. Yet when traveling in France, everyone knows that the great food isn’t in Paris, it’s in Provence—the countryside. And that’s what Korea is. It’s great peasant food that speaks to the heart. That prissy urban cuisine—Tokyo has already cornered that market. Korea’s strength is its rustic dishes like boribap, jjimdalk, and dalk galbi. In a way, Korea is the Provence of Asia.
Promote Korean food to promote Korean food. Famous chef Pierre Gagnaire said that in order for Koreans to promote their cuisine, they need to learn to love it first.