In the age of the jetset superchef – a travelling circus of awards, events and not-to-be missed collaborations between famous chef A and famous chef B – it’s easy to overlook the quiet ones.
For example, Mingoo Kang of Mingles in Seoul who will be in London next month to cook with Jeremy Chan at Ikoyi. Chan, you may already know, for his restlessly inventive and Michelin star-winning West African-inspired cuisine but Kang is little known here outside chef circles.
The dinner, on Nov 17, will be his first time cooking his food in London. I met the former Nobu head chef at his recently relocated restaurant in fashionable Cheongdam-dong, minutes from Sacai and Celine’s Seoul flagships, to hear about the new Korean cuisine that has earned him two Michelin stars and the title of Best Restaurant in Korea for four consecutive years.
“For the first two year or three years after I came back to Korea I was taking ideas from places I’d worked, famous restaurants where I did stages, trendy restaurant ideas, more Korean-French or Korean-European. It was very popular but it wasn’t my food,” recalls Kang, a cool, intense presence clad in wire-rimmed glasses and his signature baseball cap (this one embossed with a Korean flag motif by local brand Vibrate).
“I decided to learn about traditional cuisine and started studying temple cuisine. Every Friday night I’d go to the temple [Baegyangsa, two and half hours’ drive from Seoul] and spent all of Saturday cooking with the monk, Jeong Kwan. I did that for one and a half years. I also took lessons with Cho Hee Sook [of restaurant Hansikgonggan]. She’s been cooking for as long as I’ve been alive. For me, she’s the best chef in Korea. Others chefs of my generation will tell you the same.”
The influences of these two women reveal themselves on a late summer tasting menu at Mingles. Jeong Kwan (known to many from Netflix’s Chef’s Table) cooks only vegan cuisine but there are echoes of her acute seasonality in Kang’s chilled tomato porridge with cucumber and burrata and half a ripe fleshy peach garnished with pine nuts, summer bean purée and anchovy.
A more formal, technical dish of steamed red mullet mandu (dumpling) stuffed with zucchini, tofu and water parsley, in a lightly viscous kimchi and soy broth draws on Cho’s Royal Court-style ‘hansik’ (traditional Korean cuisine). Galbi, a short rib patty, with steamed white rice and kimchi served on hand-forged bangjja (brassware) is iconically, quintessentially Korean.
Kang now sources 95 per cent of produce from a network of over 100 vendors across South Korea. Mingles’ exquisite glassware and ceramics are sourced by Chung So Young of Si Ki Jang. The perfect yellow peach came “from my friend’s mother’s friend.”
Kang’s signature is his ‘Jang Trio’, a powerful sweet-savoury dessert based on Korean cuisine’s three ‘jang’. As he explains: “French cuisine has five mother sauces from which you develop the other sauces. In Korean cuisine, there are three: soy sauce [ganjang], fermented bean paste [doenjang] and chilli paste [gochujang].
"Wherever I am in the world, if I can get good local produce and I have those three ingredients, some sesame oil and vinegar, I can make Korean food.”
In the Jang Trio, he literally ‘mingles’ the flavours with soy bean crème brûlée, soy-caramelised pecans, puffed black rice with gochuchang powder, vanilla ice cream and intense whisky foam.
The plan to cook together was hatched, Gangnam-style, over cold beer and fried chicken after Chan ate at Mingles. Before finalising the details, Kang visited Ikoyi.
“I thought I’d better try his food. I was quite shocked by all the spices in a Michelin star restaurant,” he says. “I was impressed by the attention to detail. Temperature and timing are very important for Asian chefs and I saw that focus at Ikoyi.” (Chan, for his part, declares his meal at Mingles ‘awesome’, the presentation ‘sublime’).
The menu will be a genuinely collaborative, with new dishes for the event, not just signatures in sequence. (Chan reveals he’s working on a Korean spin on his famous scotch bonnet and raspberry salt plantain: I’m thinking some kind of fermented bean salt with dried plums, maybe a kimchi emulsion.” He’s also got some ‘exceptional’ beef aging in preparation. “I want to show him what British beef is about.”)
Kang wants to show how contemporary Korean cuisine is changing. He’s one of a generation of young chefs, among them Mosu’s Sung Anh and Joo Ok’s Chang-ho Shin, who have returned home after a stint abroad with a new vision of Korean food.
“Seoul doesn’t get as much coverage as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, but we have lots of potential. There are so many good restaurants.”
Mingles X Ikoyi takes place on November 17. Tickets go sale on October 11 via ikoyilondon.com
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