Jeong Kwan, the Philosopher Chef by Jeff Gordinier:
Images by Jackie Nickerson:
The most exquisite food in the world, say many celebrated chefs, is being made not in Copenhagen
or New York, but in a remote temple complex south of Seoul by a 59-year-old Buddhist nun.
‘‘MY PLAYGROUND,’’ Jeong Kwan says.
We have come to the edge of her garden on the grounds of the Chunjinam hermitage of the Baekyangsa temple, 169 miles south of Seoul. Kwan is revered around the world for her cooking, but she is first and foremost a Zen Buddhist nun, and this garden reflects the come-what-may equanimity of her spiritual practice. If insects want to land and feast here, they are welcome to — through a translator she tells me that she does ‘‘nothing’’ to dissuade them. ‘‘That’s why it’s not pretty,’’ she says. If a wild boar makes off with a pumpkin, well, so be it — the garden has no fence around it, and it seems to blur into the surrounding forest in a way that suggests the playground remains open to beasts of all types.
I have been at the temple for a day or so, having slept on the floor of a stark, cabinlike visitors’ dormitory, and having awoken at around 3 in the morning to watch the monks of Baekyangsa chant and bow in the moonlight. By now I have listened in on several conversations about Buddhism and food: lively exchanges between Jeong Kwan and Eric Ripert, the French chef from Le Bernardin in New York City, a Buddhist who has made his second pilgrimage to the monastery to bask in the nun’s presence — and eat her food.
A Zen Buddhist monk on the grounds of the Baekyangsa Temple in South Korea’s Naejangsan National Park, where Kwan cooks transcendent vegan cuisine. Credit Jackie Nickerson
But even if you can talk about food for hours, there comes a point when you need to make contact with it. Which is why Kwan has led us to the garden. Here, she coos over pumpkin blossoms, green chiles and eggplant, and shows me how to pluck leaves of mint and perilla — gently, with a moist pinch between my thumb and index finger at a firm spot on the stem. The leaves are placed in a wide basket; shortly they’ll be carried up the hill and incorporated into a meal. But for a moment I am encouraged to hold the leaves to my nostrils and breathe in their herbal fragrance.
Kwan believes that the ultimate cooking — the cooking that is best for our bodies and most delicious on our palates — comes from this intimate connection with fruits and vegetables, herbs and beans, mushrooms and grains. In her mind, there should be no distance between a cook and her ingredients. ‘‘That is how I make the best use of a cucumber,’’ she explains through a translator. ‘‘Cucumber becomes me. I become cucumber. Because I grow them personally, and I have poured in my energy.’’ She sees rain and sunshine, soil and seeds, as her brigade de cuisine. She sums it up with a statement that is as radically simple as it is endlessly complex: ‘‘Let nature take care of it.’’
All of which puts her in the same camp as some of the most influential leaders in international gastronomy — chefs like Michel Bras and Alain Passard, Dan Barber and David Kinch. There is a crucial difference, though. Jeong Kwan has no restaurant. She has no customers. She has published no cookbooks. She has never attended culinary school, nor has she worked her way up through the high-pressure hierarchy of a four-star kitchen. Her name does not appear in any of those annual round-ups listing the greatest chefs in the world, although Ripert will assure you that she belongs among them, as do a few contemporaries of hers at temples throughout Korea.
Kwan is an avatar of temple cuisine, which has flowed like an underground river through Korean culture for centuries. Long before Western coinages like ‘‘slow food,’’ ‘‘farm-to-table’’ and ‘‘locavore,’’ generations of unsung masters at spiritual refuges like Chunjinam were creating a cuisine of refinement and beauty out of whatever they could rustle up from the surrounding land. Foraging? Fermenting? Dehydrating? Seasonality? Been there, done that — Jeong Kwan and her peers at monasteries throughout Korea have a millennia-spanning expertise in these currently in-vogue methods that can make a top chef feel like a clueless punk.
I was pretty clueless myself. When I first heard about Jeong Kwan, in the early weeks of 2015, Eric Ripert had invited her to New York City so that she could introduce Korean temple cuisine to a group of people in a private room at Le Bernardin. I had no idea what to expect; some of my previous encounters with monastic repasts had involved watery bean soups and yams boiled to the very brink of solidity. When it comes to food, a monastery can sound like the sort of place where flavor is an afterthought and beauty a mere distraction. But Kwan’s lunch left me humbled and exhilarated. Here were compositions on the plate that were so elegant they could’ve been slipped into a tasting menu at Benu or Blanca and no one would have batted an eyelash. Here were flavors so assertive they seemed to leave vapor trails on the tongue. Somehow, all of it was vegan. Korean temple cuisine is made without meat, fish, dairy or even garlic or onions (which are believed to arouse the libido), and tasting it for the first time convinced me that vegan and vegetarian chefs in the West needed to board immediate flights to the Republic of Korea for a crash course in plant-based virtuosity.
Korean temple cuisine is rooted in a principle that, from a chef’s perspective, doesn’t make any sense: You’re not supposed to crave it. The way you find yourself almost aching for a gooey slice of pizza? Not here. Temple cuisine is engineered to provoke a different reaction, one that goes back to the Buddhist concept of nonattachment: You may relish it as you eat it, yes, but you should have no urge to stuff your face with another heap of it when you’re done.
When Americans talk about Korean cooking, which has become tremendously popular in food-fixated circles over the past decade or so, they tend to talk primarily about barbecue — fatty strips of beef and pork sizzling on a hot surface. Temple cuisine forsakes these flavors, as well as the bloat and delirium that are usually associated with the party-down, soju-dizzy, every-dish-comes-at-once mode of Korean feasting. Instead, temple cuisine is all about delicacy. You’re left with simultaneous feelings of fullness and lightness. You consume this food as a source of mental and physical clarity — as kindling for meditation.
Paradoxically, though, chefs in recent years have begun craving more information about temple cuisine. You might hear a young chef in Seoul cite it as an influence on his or her work (as does the buzzed-about Mingoo Kang, who gives Korean classics a haute-cuisine spin at his restaurant, Mingles), and you might be surprised to find out that René Redzepi, the trailblazing chef at Noma in Copenhagen, once took a trip through Korea to learn more about this centuries-old style of cooking. In Korea there is a growing nostalgia for this old way; temple cuisine is viewed as a fading echo of an era before rampant Westernization. Meanwhile, for high-end chefs in other parts of the world, like Ripert and Redzepi, temple cuisine (not only in Korea but throughout Asia) represents a sort of gastronomic Rosetta Stone: As more chefs become obsessed with the idea of ‘‘vegetable-forward’’ menus, Buddhist cuisine provides reliable instructions for how it can be done. If, as some believe, we’re all headed for a vegan future, could this be cause for celebration?
The van ferrying us from Seoul to the monastery takes about four hours, eventually twisting up forested hills that could easily be mistaken for the Hudson Valley of New York. The country is in the midst of a heat wave, but beneath these tree boughs the air cools, and the noisy throb of Seoul is quickly forgotten. Here is one of those places where, when you breathe deeply, you notice the floral sweetness of the air and the slowing of your heart. The monastery itself is modest, a series of traditional buildings with a gravel lot between them, and clusters of oaks and maples around the perimeter. Amble a few yards in any direction and you’re in the woods.
It doesn’t feel like a place where anyone is trying to change the way the world eats. There is an unmistakable tourist-baiting grandeur to the main complex of the seventh-century Baekyangsa temple — gilded Buddhas, a gargantuan drum and a bell-like gong that are used to rouse the complex’s 58 monks for prayer — but the area where the nuns live has the slightly lonesome feeling of a summer camp after all the kids have gone back to school.
Shortly after we arrive, we are ushered into a dining room for a temple lunch, the first in a series of meals that will repeatedly leave us stunned. We are served slices of Korean pear, glazed with a tart citrus sauce, and pickled herbs, handmade dumplings and mushroom caps filled with diced tofu, and rice that has taken on the yellow hue of gardenia seeds. We have kimchee that has been buried in a hole in the ground for months, and we have summer kimchee that Kwan makes fresh, with cabbage and radish and copious fistfuls of salt. She grates potatoes by hand for her pancakes, which she layers with chopped leaves of that fresh mint from her garden. She cooks rice wrapped in lotus leaves and stuffed into round knobs of cut bamboo that are boiled in a cauldron. (Before the rice heats up, she might place five beans on top of it to symbolize the five precepts of Buddhism, or a trio of beans that stand for the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.) We watch how she relies on alchemies of smoke and steam, soil and water, bacteria and air, and we learn that she likes to cap off a meal or a conversation with cocktails, even though here they are of course rigorously nonalcoholic. Whenever we meet with her we are given cups of something: a sweet orange-colored pumpkin punch studded with nibbles of rice, or an exquisitely delicate lotus-flower tea that, we are told, symbolizes the blossoming of Buddhist enlightenment.
If you wander the grounds of the monastery, it becomes clear that Jeong Kwan has another rare ingredient in her larder, one that rarely comes up in discussions about the latest hot chef: time. Cooking, for her, might be seen as the ultimate long game. She specializes in pairing what’s freshly plucked with what’s patiently funkified. On a roof at the monastery, just up the way from her garden, she keeps an open-air arsenal of urns and vats that teem with invisible activity. These are her secret weapons: condiments like soy sauce, doenjang (bean paste) and gochujang (chile paste) that have been fermenting and evolving in slow motion. Some of these age not for weeks, but for years. She grabs a spoon, opens a ceramic pot, reaches in and lets me taste a soy sauce that has spent a full decade inching toward deliciousness. Propped up with supports right outside Kwan’s residence is a citrus tree, whose fruit is known as a taengja, or hardy orange. The tree is about 500 years old. It still bears fruit, and Kwan uses its sour juice in her cooking.
When Kwan talks a long game, she means it. In conversation, she suggests that, in accordance with her Buddhist belief in reincarnation and ‘‘past-life karma,’’ it’s possible that she was deeply engaged with the art of cooking long before she arrived at the life she inhabits now. She grew up on a farm, and by the age of 7 she was making noodles by hand. The first time she set foot in a Buddhist temple she felt free, she says, and at the age of 17 she ran away from the farm. Two years later, she had officially joined an order of Zen nuns. Before long she realized that she was destined to spread the dharma by ‘‘communicating with sentient beings through the medium of food,’’ she says.
The paradox is that she does so for such a limited audience. There are only two other nuns meditating alongside her at the Chunjinam hermitage. They cook together; sometimes Kwan cooks for the monks, or for visitors.
And this seems like the most Zen idea of all: that one of the world’s greatest chefs can often be found mapping out her meals in silence and solitude, plucking mint leaves in a garden that feels far, far away from anything resembling preening egos and gastronomic luxury. But she seems to know that positive energy has a habit of finding its way out into the wider world. One day, after we have toured the temple, she leads me down to a small bridge that crosses over a creek. We stand on the bridge and she touches her hand to her ear. She wants me to listen. So we listen: She and I simply stand there by the water for a couple of minutes, listening to the sound of the current. Then she smiles — it really is like a ray of light, this smile — and points to the creek and utters a single word in English, as she looks into my eyes.
‘‘Orchestra,’’ she says.