CEO Vivian Han of Congdu restaurant, Seoul, explains why a meal at her restaurant involves giving pride of place to the individual
Vivian Han is hailed as a pioneer of neo-Korean cuisine. Originally a fashion and jewellery designer, she lived and worked in the U.S. and the U.K. for several years before returning to Seoul. Opening Congdu (meaning ‘beans’) in 2002, she set out to use traditional Korean ingredients to present flavours that were accessible to an international palate. Her restaurant located behind historic Deoksugang Palace, provides just the genteel, minimalist setting to do so. In Singapore to introduce Korean cuisine at e2i’s Taste of East Asia event recently, Han spills the beans on modern Korean cuisine.
What shapes your culinary philosophy?
My grandparents were from North Korea, so since the time I was born, I was introduced to dishes like Naeng Myeon (cold noodle soup), and I developed a palate for very clean-tasting food. This is something I have incorporated into the cooking at Congdu.
What’s your definition of Neo Korean cuisine?
When I was young, I liked Western food and followed food trends. In England, people were crazy over Japanese food. I felt jealous. I wanted to introduce Korea’s special taste. I started thinking about what is the root of our special taste. I came to the conclusion that it is fermentation. We have so many fermented foods in Korea, whether it is jang, kimchi, salted fish or pickled fish with lots of chilli.
I wondered how to create these foods and make them more attractive. For me, neo Korean cuisine is about passing on the tradition of how we used to eat and giving a modern twist to it. Apart from silver cod, all the ingredients we use at Congdu are from Korea. We use various different cooking methods to highlight these precious ingredients from all over Korea.
How has neo Korean evolved from the time you started in 2002 to now?
I believe we are in a stage of self-awareness now. We need to discover more about ourselves. And I think that the attitude of those consuming this type of food has changed. It used to be that Koreans didn’t have an appreciation for Korean food. Now it’s much better. We appreciate grand masters like grand master Ki Soon-do (who makes traditional fermented sauces) and their efforts more now.
How is neo Korean cuisine expressed at Congdu?
A metaphor for my cuisine is the single table setting and individually portioned meals. You may think that it is common in Korea to find the whole family digging into communal plates, with lots of side dishes and sharing plates. But back in the day, each person had his own dining table and food was individually portioned. I wanted to bring a bit of that back at Congdu.
One example is our grilled yellow Corvina fish with rice and Bosung green tea with rice. One would add rice to the tea and eat the Corvina, but households do not normally eat in this manner. The key lies in the table setting—in arranging and portioning it the way I think an individual would enjoy it more. So far this presentation has proven popular. Our Corvina dish is one of our signature dishes, and we go through about 80,000 pieces of Corvina a year.
Other signature dishes are blue crab preserved in soy sauce, and Dokdo sweet shrimps. We develop new dishes every season.
We hear you love to scour the depths of the land to find local produce. What are some of the recent discoveries you’ve had recently?
There are too many! Every single time I visit a Korean region, I find gems. For example, in Daecheon Beach on the west coast, they have lovely sea eels that the locals marinate in gochujang and garlic. It tastes very mild. I am thinking to adapt it and create my own dish. Instead of a big dish to be shared by many people, it will be a serving for one person. And I am working on creating a new sauce for it instead of simply using the traditional gochujang sauce. Perhaps we’d age the gochujang in a sous vide machine…
After running Congdu more than a decade, what are your next steps forward?
I’m thinking very hard about this. The restaurant has been doing well for 16 years now. Since we started, a lot of restaurants have opened, trying to do something similar. But should I give up because others are copying? Actually, a dream of mine is to have an R&D centre, where my role will be to create modern sauces based on traditional ones made by artisans. But we’ll see.
Apart from Congdu, which restaurants would you recommend to go for good Seoul eats?
I like Mingles. It has a Michelin star and was voted number 1 for two years running in KOREAT, the local version of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. I like the attitude of the chef, and how creative he is, such as using Jang even in the dessert. I also like Pil Dong Myun Ok (near Chungmoro station) for their naeng myeon (cold noodles) and their steamed pork. They really offer the real, original taste of Korean cuisine even though it is a humble place. Another off-the-beaten-track choice is Eunjujeong in the middle of Bangsan market. They have the best kim chi jjigae. And their pork belly and ssamjang (Korean spicy sauce) is so good!
116-1 Deoksugung-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea; Tel: +82 2 722 7002
Chef Kang Mingoo from Mingles will be in town from 16 – 23 August! Catch him at the third edition of the 2017 Art at Curate dining series at Curate restaurant at Resorts World Sentosa.