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.'”
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.
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.
We ordered a set menu of their representative dishes. The food that came out was gorgeous on gorgeous plates.
But then we tasted it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.