Best Female Chef: Cho Hee Sook of Hansikgonggan
Korean chef Che Hee Sook has recently been named Best Female Chef at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2020, which specialises in Korean traditional cuisine. Her restaurant Hansikgonggan is known for elevating very traditional dishes in a spectacular display without losing touch with its roots. In conjunction with International Women’s Day, we hear what she has to say about winning this spectacular honour as well as her advice for young female chefs entering the culinary industry.
What does the award mean to you?
For my entire career, I did what I did without watching the clock. This career could have been just lost in the mists of time. But I’m blessed with this award, it’s more than what I deserve. I wish my elderly female chefs who have worked constantly can be awarded together with me.
What was your reaction when you were told you were this year’s recipient?
Initially, I thought they had emailed the wrong person. And then I found my name on the email as I read through the email from top to bottom. Something that I thought would never happen, just happened to me. And it made me emotional.
What were the challenges when you started?
Back in 1983, when I first started working in the kitchen, my working hours came up to 15 hours a day and it challenged me physically every day. And back in those days, female chefs were often underestimated. To overcome the prejudice against female chefs, I had to work 2-3 times harder than the other chefs.
Who were your mentors in the industry? How did they inspire you?
I learned the Korean cuisine’s foundation from Lee Malsoon, the president of Korea Traditional Food Research Association whose mission is to preserve the dignity of traditional Korean food. And her guidance continues to be the cornerstone of my cooking philosophy. I’ve been always thinking not only how to cook my own style of cuisine, which no one ever tried before, but also how I should cook without harming the legitimacy of Korean traditional noble cuisine that I learned from Lee Malsoon.
What do you consider to be the key to your success?
Ingredients, sincerity towards food and guests, the guests who recognise and support what we are trying to accomplish, my beloved people in the industry, young chefs and my staff who help me to present my food as desired are all the key of my success.
What did you learn while lecturing at Woosong University and from your role as a food researcher at Arumjigi Foundation?
Working at Woosong University, I learnt it was very important to impart a strong work ethic and basic attitude to future chefs. From Arumjigi foundation, I developed a deeper understanding of food tools and utensils. It made me realize good design is not just about looking good, but it also has to be very practical.
What motivated you to open Hansikgonggan?
I felt a restaurant like HansikGonggan was needed for foreigners who would like to know about Korean food and for Koreans who want to experience noble Korean food. So they can experience the interpretation of traditional Korean food to a fine dining level. And also entering my twilight years, I wanted to cook what I wanted to cook, not for hotels and not for others.
What food or which particular dish can best represent your personality?
For many years, I tried to show my style through my dishes. So, it’s difficult for me to choose just one. But I can tell which features distinguish my dishes from others. I keep the original taste of traditional Korean flavours, but I try to break the mould when I choose cooking techniques and ingredients.
What’s next for you? What is the next challenge you’ve set for yourself?
I will continue to work tirelessly to think of a better future for Korean food. I hope I can put all these experiences together. So, this can be useful to someone who needs it.
What do you consider to be the leading food trends of 2020?
I never tried to follow the trends while working in this industry. When I developing a new menu, I try to know what guests want and what ingredients are good in the year. So, I’m not the perfect person to ask what’s the leading food trends of 2020. Hahaha!
What is the future of Korean cuisine?
In these days, people eat food to be healthy and to be mentally consoled. And Korean cuisine offers both health and consolation to the people who take it. In the future, Korean cuisine will be shared with even more people around the globe.
What advice would you give to young chefs?
Your career fulfils you. But it also can help your guest to become healthier, both physically and mentally. Working as a chef, you can also impact the environment immensely without noticing. Please take good care of environment and be proud of your job.
What can be done to encourage more female chefs to join the industry?
It’s not easy to be a woman in the industry, especially in the kitchen. But you can overcome the challenges with womanly strengths like a delicate touch and instinctive care. Look within yourself and the tenacity of your strong mind to leap over those barriers. As long as you keep moving forward, one day, without realizing it, you will become an incredible chef.
The Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant 2020 will be telivised live on the 50 Best Facebook Page on 24th March 2020.
For all 50 Best related content, see 50 Best.