Korean food and the city of Seoul are having a culinary moment. Globally Korean cuisine has reached the heights of popularity and here, in Korea, a new style enveloping local and foreign flavors has gained strong foothold.
Mingles Restaurant in Gangnam, Seoul, is representative of all that is cutting edge about eating in the capital. Its chef patron, Kang Min-goo, is one of the most talked about chefs in Seoul today, taking top spots on restaurant rankings with his beautifully modern take on Korean classics.
Having worked at Nobu Bahamas and Nobu Miami Beach, where he was the youngest-ever head chef, Kang draws on that international experience to create his unique menu for Koreans who have been opening up their palates to global flavors in recent years.
The Palate is fortunate to have an insight into a top restaurant in Seoul and the man behind its success.
The Palate: Where did your culinary career begin? Did you attend culinary school or were you self-taught?
Mingoo Kang: I am a native Korean chef. I studied culinary art at Kyonggi University in Korea. I lived abroad for five years. However, instead of studying at culinary institutions, I gained my experience working at various locations around the globe. The U.S., Spain, France, the Bahamas, etc. … Wherever I could enhance my culinary knowledge, I sought out apprenticeship without the constraints of borders or environment.
TP: Throughout your career as a chef, who has been the most inspirational figure?
MK: To name a few, Nobu Matsuhisa who has blended traditional Japanese dishes with European and Latin American ingredients, Pascal Barbot who has been innovating Asian-French cuisine for the last 10 years, and Yim Jungsik who pioneered the New Korean cuisine.
TP: Mingles is a culmination of the experiences you have gained from the places you have worked and traveled. You have combined that with your Korean roots and have brought it back home here in Seoul. It is safe to say that the contemporary Korean palate has become similar to the global palate more than ever before. Can you share your thoughts on creating these unique flavors for the Korean customer?
MK: Provide something refreshing that stems from their familiarity. It would be too imposing to just focus on unique and unfamiliar dishes. Instead, utilizing familiar ingredients to capture the essence of the traditional dish in an innovative way, I believe, would be more approachable. This is the reason behind us avidly using jang (soy sauce, doenjang). Like how the old saying goes, “The taste of Korean food stems from jang,” we try to create a new innovative dish without compromising the essence of the Korean flavor.
TP: What are the three ingredients you cannot live without?
MK: Jang, seasonal seafood, and citrus (lemon, lime, tangerines, etc.)
TP: Korea has extremely diverse seasonal resources available. When you’re coming up with new dishes, are there any specific regions or seasons you prefer?
MK: During spring and early summer, vegetables and seasonal herbs are exceptional. Also, during the late autumn and winter season a wider variety of seafood become available. It is a great joy for a chef to be able to create new dishes with the different ingredients the season provides.
TP: What were the important lessons you learned in your career that you instill in your restaurant Mingles today? You are a very calm and humble person for someone in a high-stress profession. Do you approach your kitchen and business with a certain philosophy?
MK: From the outside, people may think that I am a very calm person. However, in reality, I am extremely strict, intimidating, and sensitive when I’m in the kitchen. To be frank, it must be exhausting for my kitchen staff. Running a restaurant is a people business. People make, serve, and consume the food. Thus, it is paramount to treat the people with the utmost respect and sensibility. In addition, it is also imperative to always be humble and have a communal spirit.
TP: Chefs, food and restaurants are such a cultural obsession here and abroad and there is a great curiosity as to what happens behind the scenes. Do you have a story to share that gives some color and insight from your vantage point?
MK: In June last year, our restaurant held a gala dinner event at the Milano Expo. It was an event for some 120 people from the local media, European food critics association, and visitors from Korea. In order to prepare for this event we closed the restaurant for 10 days and went on a business trip to Milan, then afterward we went on a culinary vacation to Paris. This trip has been the most memorable moment in my team’s life, as well as mine.