The Worst Korean Restaurants are the Expensive Ones

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This is the first part in the Korean Food Globalization series.

The Ajosshies-in-charge (AiC), particularly pottery maker and yangban blowhard Cho Tae-kwon (recently featured in this Korea Times article), have been steering the great ship of Korean food promotion towards the ridiculous, tasteless and pretentious. You see, Mr. Cho believes that the way to introduce Korean food to the west is by starting with the high end and work down. “‘Culture flows from the top to the bottom.'”

Trickle-down culture.

Cho Tae-kwon (from The Korea Times)
Cho Tae-kwon (from The Korea Times)

You see, Mr. Cho and most of the folks in charge are rich yangban, modern versions of Korea’s incestuous naval-gazing aristocracy. I’m no expert on Korean history, but I am an avid student. I took two courses on Korean history in school, and I continue to read it with interest. A recurring thread, especially in the last few centuries, has been the tendency of the yangban to perverse the entire Korean economic and social system to their benefit without the country’s best interests at heart. Their family status came first and still does.

Mr. Cho owns a pottery company and has owned a series of high end Korean restaurants. He has a pampered horse in this race, and he wants to make the course easier for it to win. And he exhibits all the cringe-inducing traits of the old yangban elite.

In the Korea Times article he outlines his worldview that governments and men in power need to be introduced to fancy Korean cuisine and ceramics. Then they will introduce it to their peasantry populace. He makes it obvious later in the article that it turns his stomach to see the classes mixing in Korean restaurants.

“‘One thing that I find really funny is you can find people from the bottom to the top level of society in these restaurants.'”

I’ve heard this reaction from a few folks when I rant about this.

“What’s wrong with doing high end Korean cuisine?”

My answer: nothing.

Nothing is wrong with making Korean cuisine a high end luxury. Some chefs like Ciaran Hickey of the W Seoul, Nick Flynn of the Grand Intercontinental and Im Jeong Sik of Jeong Sik Dang–they get it. They’re doing the high end Korean cuisine with flair and flavor.

A nouveau riche approach to fine dining

The problem is that the AiC take a nouveau riche approach to high end food, defined by ostentatious displays of wealth with no subtlety, restraint or class. It reminds me of an article I read about some trailer park people who won the lottery. They used their new wealth to get a double-wide trailer home and decorated it with velvet paintings. That’s the AiC. They have all this new wealth from their amazing economic achievements. Yet they have a cartoonish concept of high end living. And it’s this concept that they’re trying to promote as Korean food.

Gaon
Gaon exterior

Back when it was around, I had dined at Mr. Cho’s Seoul restaurant The Gaon. This was his concept of how Korean food should be promoted. I was the guest of a New York Times travel columnist, and the paper was picking up the tab. That was a good thing because we would have been storming angry if we had to pay for what we got. The first thing was the wine list. I don’t pretend to be an expert on wine, but the columnist had been around and knew a bit about oenology. He laughed at the types of wines on the list and their prices, around three times as you would pay anywhere else. They were really trying to impress someone with their prices. They even had a chicken soup for W299,000.

Gaon menu with price of chicken soup

We ordered a set menu of their representative dishes. The food that came out was gorgeous on gorgeous plates.

But then we tasted it.

Scallop muchim--where's the scallop?
Scallop muchim--where's the scallop?

It was obvious that the two top concerns of the restaurant were the high end price and food presentation. Flavor came as a distant afterthought. The appetizer of a scallop muchim was just shaved leeks and vegetables with two tiny slivers of raw scallop, all drenched in sickeningly sweet vinegared gochujang. In fact, we played a game that the first person who could actually find the scallop won.

Kimchi jjim--no different than any Korean pub other than the price
Kimchi jjim--no different than any Korean pub other than the price

The rest of the meal was one bland dish after another. My local mom-and-pop shikdang made much better tasting and satisfying food at just a fraction of the price of a Gaon appetizer. They bragged about scouring the country for the finest ingredients. Yet after they brought them into the kitchen, the ingredients weren’t respected and instead had their natural flavors covered up or removed rather than enhanced. This was accompanied by snooty service that made us feel like peons for dining in their great palace. In fact, they were shooing us out the door because it was closing time while we were eating dessert and considering ordering some coffees. You’d expect that for the price you pay at a high end restaurant, the service would wait for you to finish.

This is the way Korean food will take over the world?

Promoting the bland and boring

Unfortunately, this is the uncommon wisdom of the AiC. There’s this perception that foreigners should only be exposed to royal hanjeongsik when eating Korean. For example, representatives from my old boarding school have been coming to Korea recently because they’ve been getting a lot of Korean students. The parents of these students are in the Korean elite, and they feel that they need to show what they believe is the best of Korean cuisine. In April, one of my old friends, who is now an admissions officer, along with one of my favorite teachers, who is now in the administration, made a visit. I caught up with my friend one evening for a drink. I asked how he had been enjoying the food.

Hanjeongsik canape topped with mayo potato salad
Hanjeongsik canape topped with mayo potato salad

He rolled his eyes.

“Sometimes it’s good.”

He was getting worn of the constant banquets of hanjeongsik–plates and plates of pretty but pretty bland food–that the parents kept taking them out for. In fact, the school administrator called a moratorium on all parental meetings after a while so he could enjoy some real Korean barbecue with his son, who was teaching in Seoul.

I agree. I’ve never had a hanjeongsik experience that blew me away. You can’t call it high class when you’re drizzling iceberg lettuce with honey mustard and putting potato salad on a cucumber slice. They look like cheesy hors d’œuvres from 1960s American cookbooks, complete with parsley sprigs and maraschino cherries. And it makes the food taste foul when you get that bill.

Ignoring the joys of everyday common people food

In my casual surveys of what Korean food is big in America, I consistently hear that it’s fried chicken and barbecue along with street food. But fried chicken and barbecue?

That’s what the little people eat.

The AiC don’t care about that. It’s precisely because of their obsession with class status that the makkoli trend caught them by surprise. While the nouveau riche yangban were pretentiously swirling their Yellow Tail merlot, the rice beer that was disdained as a farmer’s swill hit it big with the young crowds in Hongdae and Tokyo.

Makkoli in a carafe. Classy. (click for source)

Of course, when the government finally caught on, they started inserting it into their yangban worldviews. We started seeing makkoli being served in glass carafes and stemmed wine glasses, which made it look ridiculously like glasses of milk. Then they obsessed with establishing an official makkoli glass. Then there was the Drunken Rice fiasco, displaying the AiC’s other fetish–putting everything into bad English to sound sophisticated.

Upscale barbecue?

As the AiC have begrudgingly donned their white gloves to embrace makkoli, they’re slowly turning towards Korean barbecue, and doing a splendid job of destroying a Korean food institution that the world is growing to love. What people like about Korean barbecue is the fun of cooking food in the middle of your table with friends and family, surrounded by an army of banchan. If there’s one thing that can be stated about American food culture, we love to see an abundance of food. If you think about it, that’s how restaurants even got Americans to eat salads. We created abundant salad bars.


But this new dreadful trend I’m seeing is this upscale Korean barbecue. These new types of restaurants start by inserting wine lists and nice pottery. Not a bad start, in my opinion. But then things go comically bad. The prices jump straight up, and they only give you half the meat, like three sad slices of pork belly per order. This isn’t even the good quality local pork. It’s imported. That smacks in the face of the locavore movement in modern fine dining. Then you get a maximum–a maximum–of three side dishes. EJ and I went to one of these places last Friday, and she didn’t even touch the meat or kimchi. The kimchi tasted like imported convenience store crap. The service was still short and rude, slamming the food on the table like people do when they’re feeding their dogs. Some drunk had vomited from the door of the restaurant to the bathroom, and diners had to walk through it. The restaurant didn’t even consider cleaning it up. But, hey, the pottery was nice. And it was expensive, so it must have been good.

Confusing expensive with sophisticated

That’s another nouveau riche status obsessed headache with Korean fine dining. An American PR professional told me that Koreans at a food expo would just sit down at the Korean booth and not even look at the menu. They didn’t care about the food itself. They just wanted to order the most expensive thing.

Gujeolpan--the nine sectioned dish. Is this more exciting than barbecue?
Gujeolpan, the nine-sectioned dish. Is this more exciting than barbecue?

This same PR professional expressed frustration that the government was insisting on shoving pretentious court cuisine like guljeolpan 구절판 down Americans’ throats when they admitted they didn’t eat it themselves. But it was considered sophisticated, and it was all about the show. One of the hotel chefs said that he tried to lower the restaurant’s exorbitant prices when he first arrived, but the Korean customers complained. They complained!

If I may really stick my neck out to be chopped, I believe the AiC don’t even like Korean food. Not the real stuff. There’s a reason that the major hotels don’t have Korean restaurants (NOTE: Since this writing the Lotte Hotel has transformed one restaurant into a Korean one). The Korean nouveau riche don’t think their own cuisine is sophisticated enough. They instead opt for $30 spaghetti with a side of sweet pickles.

W Seoul. Upscale Korean done right--with flavor!
W Seoul. Upscale Korean done right--with flavor!

When the W Seoul introduced their Korean menu, “Fatman Seoul” Jennifer and I were invited, along with the big Korean-language bloggers and press. Jen and I loved the meal. But the Korean blogger that sat next to us complained that it was too Korean. It tasted too much like everyday Korean food. He didn’t realize that all that haute French food he blogged about was just everyday French food given the same treatment.

Yet the Korean food promoters are stuck with this mentality. It’s only good when it’s expensive. Quality be damned. I was invited to a meeting of media experts about promoting Korean tourism last winter. One of the tourism guys talked to me and asked what I thought of their much maligned and recently ditched slogan, “Korea, Sparkling.”

I told him the truth of what I felt. It was a stupidly awkward slogan that obviously had not gone through any test marketing.

His reaction. “But we paid so much money for that.”

If it’s expensive, it must be good.

Disregard for the reality of the American market and economy

And that is what Mr. Cho and his AiC cohorts believe, too. They ignore the current trend in the western dining market of democratizing haute cuisine, exemplified by David Chang’s restaurant empire and gourmet food trucks like Roy Choi’s Kogi. Fine dining is no longer exclusive to the American yangban and there’s a deep seeded resentment of elites, which is why it was so easy to pass foie gras bans in California and Chicago and Obama supporters were accused of eating arugula. So their trickle-down yangban-to-yangban (Y2Y) marketing shows their blatant disregard for the reality of their market. It doesn’t fit their narrow worldviews. It takes a grand idiot to market expensive cuisine during an economic recession.

Takashi. The Japanese will take up the mantle of quality Korean bbq if Koreans won't.
Takashi. The Japanese will take up the mantle of quality Korean bbq if Koreans won't.

But if the out-of-touch AiC won’t recognize their market, others will. And they’ll do it their way. And they’ll get the recognition. And they’ll make the money. This week, The New York Times reviewed the Japanese restaurant Takashi, whose chef is from Osaka, Japan. What do they serve?

Korean barbecue.

Yet reading between the lines, New York Times Chief Restaurant Critic Sam Sifton sends a coded message about the state of Korean food in the U.S. in contrast to the reality of what Americans like. He raves about the quality of the meat compared to Korean restaurants in New York. The type of food served is what you’d find at a blue collar gobchang 곱창 grill house anywhere in Korea. I personally LOVE this stuff. But this talented Japanese chef is basically taking Korean yuk hui 육회 and making it “meat sushi.” Sifton also comments about the affordability of the sake.

So, you know what the Japanese are doing? They’re making Korean barbecue a sophisticated fine dining experience. No white tablecloths. No pretension. And Takashi understands the American market, which runs counter to the nouveau riche Korean market.

Americans want high quality at affordable prices.

Value.

They don’t see the danger that when you charge as much as the best restaurants in the world, you’re going to be compared to the best restaurants in the world. When you don’t meet their level, your reputation is demolished as a rip off.

The trend we see in Korean fine dining is receding quality at ascending prices. Starting with Cho Taek-won and the Gaon and continuing with the upscale barbecue trend, Korean food promoters still don’t “get it” when it comes to fine dining. It’s supposed to be pleasurable first. When people experience new levels of joy and pleasure, then and only then will they be happy paying premiums for it.

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11 thoughts on “The Worst Korean Restaurants are the Expensive Ones”

  1. One of the best articles this year – well done, buddy.

    To a certain extent, the locals seem to equate paying more to mean more quality in EVERY facet. Want a hagwon? You don’t choose the one down the street – you do your research and pick the most expensive one. I sometimes see it in my adult student’s eyes – I’m paying a decent chunk of change, therefore I can expect GREAT results! There was the push to inflate grades at another school I worked for because it was an ‘expensive’ school – kids just didn’t get bad grades.

    It’s not just a Korean concept – it’s simply one that’s most obviously seen. For the first time, large percentages of the crowd have more buying power than ever before – and they’re not afraid to show it off. The same thing could be seen in the Middle East amongst the people controlling the oil.

    In any case, I have plenty of hope for Korean food – the Kogi trucks in the USA, the creative chefs that actually make what people enjoy. No need to stick to tradition and high price – and the tourists will hear far more of the former than the latter through the media they actually consume.

    Reply
  2. Great article!

    (And sorry about the picture that accompanies this comment – your silly comment system left me with no choice but to sign in with my Twitter account, and though the picture is really unsuitable for any food discussion, there was really nothing else I could do.)

    Reply
  3. At last. Telling it like it is. Well done!
    We need more of this, and so do they. Without some real criticism, they will not progress.

    Reply
  4. The quality of the raw ingredients here is dropping, the prices rising, and of course they tax foreign high quality ingredients out of the water. They cant get clean healthy cheap food together yet, aiming high is insane at this stage of the game.
    Their food history is peasant, subsistance, fare. The obsession with the look over the content is endemic in most areas of their society, this new upscale restaurant trend is no exception.
    It’s really not good enough…but there might be enough naive locals here( thinking they are being modern or international, showing off) to support these disastrous concepts.
    It’s criminal, pointless and unpleasant.

    Reply
  5. Thankfully there is a lot less pretension here in Gwangju where there is a lot of good food. But you are right on the money. I hate to be taken out to ‘high class” places when I’d much rather have a solid Samgyupsal or Kimchi Chim.

    Reply
  6. LOL, we were bombarded with those ‘Korea Sparkling’ ads here in Thailand and all I kept thinking was “Huh”. But, hey, we have “Amazing Thailand” and what with the corrupt Thai government shooting civilians on the street, it ain’t that ‘amazing’ right now 🙁

    Reply
  7. Joe…GREAT article. You hit the nail on the head. There are some very good royal cuisine places around Seoul, but even the best seem to emphasize presentation over flavor. By watering down the flavors, the promoters are decreasing the likelihood of their desired goals. Korean pork cannot be beat for the flavor and freshness. If you have ever ventured to some of the small towns around Paju and feasted on Hanwoo beef while sitting on a tiny plastic chair…now this is flavor. Very sad to see that price is the main issue, but just have a look at the big department stores selling $6000 backpacks. Not any easier to understand, but at least they are consistent.

    Reply
  8. Well, it’s a good shot but you are also twisting things around to fit your “worldview.” I’m going to guess that you haven’t eaten at any of the momofuku restos, or Takashi.

    “They ignore the current trend in the western dining market of democratizing haute cuisine, exemplified by David Chang’s restaurant empire and gourmet food trucks like Roy Choi’s Kogi. Fine dining is no longer exclusive to the American yangban and there’s a deep seeded resentment of elites, which is why it was so easy to pass foie gras bans in California and Chicago and Obama supporters were accused of eating arugula.”

    Uh, you realize momofuku is hipster heaven? And it’s expensive.

    http://www.momofuku.com/ko/menu/

    Also, you’re wrong about Takashi. You’re misrepresenting the review, and I can tell you haven’t been there. It’s nothing like you describe. And it freaks Americans out. He’s directly confronting the market. Not rolling with it. Applebee’s knows the market, this guy is on his own tangent.

    I generally agree with your thesis here, but really, who listens to the Korean government when they are looking for a restaurant? Korean food is popular in NYC, and when I tell someone about all this Korean government stuff, it’s little more than a way to pass the time before the samgyetang comes to the table.

    Reply

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