Yun Kyoung-suk, chef and owner of Yunga Myeongga, is known as “Wonder Woman” among her staff at the Korean fine dining restaurant in downtown Seoul. For one thing, she hardly sleeps.
“Oh, you might say I live 25-hour days,” Yun, 50, said.
Passionate and driven to spread “hansik,” or Korean cuisine, she makes many of the ingredients herself, even the oil, soybean sauce, chili pepper paste and soybean paste.
Her belated return to a childhood dream of promoting Korean fine dining began two years ago with Yunga Myeongga. She prepares and cooks the dishes, which she updates according to Korea’s four seasons, and she constantly thinks about ways to better deliver fine Korean dining.
Interestingly, if Korean food had a passionate preacher, Yun would come close.
“Korean dining has a rich history that anyone can delve into; our forefathers created a treasure trove of information about recipes for Korean food. We now need to introduce it to the world,” Yun said. “In fact, Korean mothers are both cooks and family doctors in that they prepare food that will make their families healthy and well,” she said.
With that belief and her nimble hands, Yun puts forth healthy and fine Korean dining. This reporter had a chance to try the restaurant’s 12-course dinner Sugeumjae, which means an “undiscovered jewel.”
The course started with water, traditional liquor and Chinese yam porridge, followed by amuse-bouche, which included an eggplant wrap and a walnut persimmon roll; appetizers including bamboo shoots and chives accompanied by a special sauce; traditional Korean pancakes, which were comforting and delicious, along with stir-fried mushrooms and seasonal vegetable dish; boiled pork; and steamed targetfish wrapped in lotus leaf.
The creme-de-la-creme dish was steamed abalone and beef served in a traditional-style bowl. The dish is made with the finest Korean beef and abalone steamed with traditional Korean medicinal ingredients. It dances in a perfect tango with the diner’s taste buds, as if to dare the diner to try this unusual but balanced combination of tastes — local, rustic and clean.
Ending with a rice dish and a Korean dessert dish that included bite-sized chrysanthemum bread and boiled pear preserved in honey, the multi-course dinner rests well on the stomach and later moves the body into slumber. The next day, the diner awakes with a light feeling, perhaps attesting to the healthy ingredients in the meticulously prepared meal.
“I can boast of the cleanest kitchen, the best fresh produce and a clean taste,” Yun said. She shows the state of her kitchen in three stages — when the ingredients are prepared, when the food is cooked and when the food is served. She also opens her kitchen to culinary students. The chef also shares her recipes upon request to further promote fine Korean food.
In this way, through her culinary practice, Yun is an avid champion of the sharing economy; she believes in spreading the spirit and memory that is food, especially Korean food, through Yunga Myeongga and other projects. For example, she has hired traditional Korean artisans of “dancheong,” or traditional multicolor paintwork, to decorate the interior of Yunga Myeongga. She also volunteers at local district offices and opens her kitchen for culinary students to use. This year, she hopes to deliver lunch boxes to poor elderly residents who live in tiny rooms in shanty towns known as “jjokbangchon.”
“I don’t think I am quite the typical restaurant owner in that I pursue the food rather than the (financial) returns,” Yun said. But she considers herself business savvy — after all, she ran a hospital before returning to her long-held dream. Her approach to Korean food is to learn and uphold its essential identity and share it generously with others.
Yun has culinary blood running in her. A native of Seocheon, South Chungcheong Province, she said she can remember making “stir-fried Korean chili peppers and pork” and hot corvina stew when she was as young as eight or nine.
She was the youngest of four children — two girls and two boys — and it was her who was by her mother’s side constantly as she cooked. As a grownup, she traveled for work, got married and ran a hospital that offered a combination of Western and Oriental medicine. However, the hospital director, wife and mother of two, wanted to return to her childhood dream of becoming a “super chef.”
Her restaurant, Yunga Myeongga, offers three courses — the Surijae, the Sugeumjae and the eponymous Yunga Myeongga. The remarkable lunch course, Surijae, includes porridge, appetizers, a boiled pork dish made with pork from Jeju Island, braised fish, a rice dish and dessert; all for 30,000 won including tax.
“I developed this as my bold, ambitious menu, so that more people can come and enjoy fine Korean food,” Yun said.
Those opting for more sumptuous dishes can opt for the 12-course Sugeumjae priced at 165,000 won and the 14-course Yunga Myeongga priced at 330,000 won.
The past two years for her and the restaurant have been a period of tears, she said. “But I believe in doing what one must do; things that are meant to be will work out and those that are not meant to be will not,” Yun said, expressing her dedication to promoting Korean food.
Yun’s restaurant was not one of the 24 Korean restaurants that received Michelin stars for the first time this year, but this setback does not deter her.
“I found throughout my life that the most Korean food can have a global appeal,” Yun said. “I want to prove that hardworking, honest Korean restaurants that remain true to our traditional recipes, the reservoir of cultural content that our forefathers bequeathed to us, and to fresh ingredients can survive on their own,” she said.