Think Korean food and most might instantly think of kimchi, though most probably don’t realise that there are more than 100 different varieties of the salted, fermented vegetable (usually cabbage) staple. That such attention is paid to what is essentially a side dish epitomises the reverence Koreans hold for their cuisine, and chefs and foodies around the globe are quickly cottoning on. Korean food is on the rise, and it’s getting a contemporary twist.
“Growing up, I always believed French food was the best, I didn’t appreciate the magic of Korean cuisine,” says Min Baek, owner and executive chef of Han restaurant in Parnell. “Korean food has strong character, it involves fermentation, uses fresh leaves and seasonal ingredients. It takes time. I didn’t realise that, sat at my mum’s table, I didn’t know what was going on. But now I understand.”
Min, who hails from South Korea’s second city of Busan, is leading the charge in Aotearoa to turn Western taste buds on to his nation’s kitchen, fittingly, using French techniques. “Authentic Korean flavour can be too much for Westerners, a little too spicy,” says the chef. “So, I try to introduce it little by little. My focus is on flavour, and texture. Like New Zealand, my home city is known for its seafood, so I have tried to incorporate that here—but the species are very different so it’s not always easy.”
One of Min’s favourite ingredients is the perilla leaf. A member of the mint family, the chef says that its aromatic flavour especially complements meat. “My grandmother used to grow it in her small garden,” he adds, “and when I smell it, it still reminds me of my childhood. It’s so popular, customers often inquire as to where they may purchase it. It’s stocked in most Korean supermarkets.”
In an interview with Asian Society, pioneering New York-based chef Sohui Kim says she believes Korean food is finally having its moment in the sun owing to it being well-balanced and flavourful but also because it “doesn’t leave you feeling bloated”. “There’s certain lightness about the cuisine,” she says. “A lot of young chefs are finding there’s room to play.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Min. “Korean food just has so much potential,” he says, “and more and more Korean restaurants around the world are being awarded Michelin stars.”
Michelin-star chef Junsik Yim tells The World’s 50 Best Restaurants: “It’s not just people’s understanding of Korean food that has changed over the past five years, but people’s understanding of Korean culture as a whole.”
Also enhancing Korean food’s popularity is its healthiness. Heavy on the vegetables (the country’s vegetable consumption is said to be among the world’s highest), even most home cooks are adept at home preservation and fermenting techniques, taking great pride in minimising waste. Speaking with Food and the Fabulous, Korean-American food editor of Paste magazine Dakota Kim says that she even makes kimchi from watermelon rinds: “I’d like to see healthier fast-food spots spotlighting the wonderful vegetables Koreans are so brilliant at.”
Min positions Han at the other end of the spectrum, offering a fine dining experience that’s proudly crafted using free range meats and seasonal produce. “I support local and I support small business,” says Min. “The prices might be higher, but it definitely makes for better quality.”
Han restaurant mirrors Min’s fresh, modern approach in the kitchen. Designed by Patterson Associates, the industrial-inspired setting boasts booths and a brooding palette and, most strikingly, chimneys that hang above each table to draw away the fumes of the famous Korean barbecue.
Min’s journey to restaurateur—and entrepreneur—is an incredible one given that his career began on the very bottom of the culinary wrung as a kitchen hand. “From start to end, I learnt a lot and I loved it!” says the amiable boss.
Along the way he was trained by Michael Meredith and even started his own food truck. Han restaurant celebrated its first anniversary last October.
“I try to please everyone, and I still get very nervous when people try a new dish for the first time,” Min admits, “but when they enjoy it, then there is absolutely nothing more satisfying.”
L-R: Han Restaurant, 9 Grade wagyu beef bbq with house pickles, Beetroot ice cream with red ginseng meringue, Chefs Kevin Lee (Sous chef) and MIN (owner/chef).