Growing up on the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula, Tae Hwan Ryu wanted to be an artist and a writer. As fate would have it, being a chef allowed him to be both.
At his signature restaurant Ryunique in Seoul, chef Ryu crafts visually stunning dinners that typically exceed 20 courses, and the meals come with a map of where he sourced the ingredients and a one-page comic about the experience. Ryu, who's also the main character in the comic Michelin Star, expresses his love of art and storytelling through aesthetic-elevating cuisine rich in French and Japanese craftsmanship and Korean culture and products. He opened the restaurant as a young chef in his early 30s, but the success of Ryunique led to additional projects like the 18-seat Normal by Ryunique bistro and the penthouse Rooftop by Ryunique.
Chef Ryu spoke with PRØHBTD at Ryunique, and he had a lot to say about culinary artistry, magic meringue mushrooms and the young chef revolution.
When you were young, you were interested in being an artist. In what ways does being a chef allow you to express yourself as an artist?
I wanted to be an artist, but my father was against the idea and said, “You will be a chef,” so I changed to that. More than 18 years ago, I finished military service and then I went to Tokyo to learn to cook and then to London and Sydney. For eight years, I was outside Seoul, Korea for training. That said, I think an artist's job and a chef's job are totally different because artists produce finished artwork that will remain for a long time, but it only takes a few minutes or even seconds to finish eating the food I make.
But the dish might live forever on Instagram.
Yeah, yeah. I like to bring an artist’s eye to each step.
You've also said you wanted to be a writer. Do you see your tasting menus as telling stories?
Yes, exactly. Everything on my menu is creative. It is inspired by the season or the landscape. I travelled a lot outside of Seoul, and I met local producers and was inspired by the local landscapes of Korea.
What stories do you think you're telling about the local farms?
Actually I learned so many things from local producers. They taught me a lot of things about soil and temperature and the history of vegetables and protein. If you just go to a supermarket, you won't know everything, except how to buy and cook. It's a very simple and short process. When I go to the local farm, it is a lot of step-by-step learning and inspiration.
When I look at the sourcing map for the menu, I see quail fed with garlic and pork fed with apples. Do you request what the animals eat? Do you specifically ask for pigs fed with apples?
Actually, this one is a very special ingredient because Yesan is a very famous place for producing apples, and the producers mix the apple and grain together to feed to the pork. This is actually our signature dinner dish. We get everything from the Yesan farm… apple chutney, apple vinaigrette.
And you can taste the difference in the meat from the apple diet?
Yeah, it's a different fat because it’s very clean, not chewy, but very, very soft, with a good balance.
What about the garlic?
There is just one farm in my hometown, Busan, where the quail is bigger than normal, and they are fed garlic. Quail is usually very small so only this farm sells the very big ones.
Your dad was a marine biologist. Did you learn a lot about fish and seafood from him?
My father was a marine biologist for the government and a pioneer of sea culture in Korea. He had a laboratory [by the sea], so I lived for four years in the lab with my father when I was in elementary school. I have very strong nostalgia [for those times]. Actually, Tokyo and Sydney and London are all coastal cities, so the eight years I've lived in Seoul are the only ones I spent living landlocked. The other 30 years I lived beside the sea so I love it and a lot of things [I do] are connected to the sea.
You have influences from French and Japanese cooking. What do you think are the main techniques that you take from each?
I have no main technique. Sometimes it's more Japanese, sometimes more French, but I don't like categories like Korean style and Japanese style and Italian style. That process is very limiting for my skills and my thinking. For me, it's just my chef-produced techniques and chef-produced food, which is an innovative and contemporary style.
I trained in Tokyo for five years and focused on kaiseki and very high-quality sushi and then moved to Sydney and London for three years and focused on French and contemporary cuisine. I'm mixing it all together. For eight years I trained hard outside [South Korea] and in school as well—I went to the French Le Cordon Bleu school in London—so the most important thing [about my cuisine] is the very solid roots [of my training].
I don't like just fusion, and for every dish I have my reference—basic ones, traditional ones—and the tasting is umami for cuisine. So making dashi and sauces and using local Korean ingredients mean everything stands out. Korean and French stand out, and Japanese skill stands out, and mixing them together is better, I think so. That technique is called hybrid cuisine, and that is my cooking style.
I wanted to ask you about the chocolate forest dessert. It features a mushroom with red dots that looks like the type of mushroom that gets you high.
Like magic mushrooms? Like marijuana?
Like magic mushrooms.
It's just meringue. Korea is a very strict country. It's very conservative. If we are caught with marijuana or any drugs on us…
The chef brings his wrists together like he's being handcuffed.
But do you agree that it looks like a magic mushroom?
You also have the restaurants Normal and Rooftop. Can you tell me about them?
Ryunique is the signature restaurant so we only serve one lunch-course option and one dinner-course option. Normal by Ryunique is a bistro with some á la carte items and a four-course set menu in a natural room like this. It's very simple and smaller than here, and the price is way down. Rooftop by Ryunique is near here, like five minutes away at the Galleria Department Store rooftop, and we offer pasta, noodles and rice.
Famous chefs in Seoul tend to be younger. Do you think that's because younger chefs are more willing to do something new and adventurous?
Yeah, the Korean food scene is actually shit—fucking shit—but it takes time because the Korean fine dining scene is very young. It only began about five years ago. We opened here about seven years ago, and I helped pioneer contemporary cuisine. At that time, a Korean customer complained to me, “What's that? Is it French? Or Japanese?” Everyone complained. But after two or three years with the same concept, word started to spread, and the Michelin system came to Korea. I can’t get a Michelin star, but I don't expect it anymore, and I don't chase it.
Do you think it's because the young chefs had the opportunity to train around the world and they are more open to doing new things?
I am 38 years old, so I'm still young.
All the best chefs here seem to be young.
I'm still learning, studying, but I have been doing this for almost 20 years. Now there are even younger chefs than me, about 31 or 33, and they are still struggling. Every young chef who trained outside Korea [did so with positive results]. Sometimes imported chefs are working in Korea as well, so Seoul's restaurant scene is developing, but each young chef has a unique personality. I like focusing on my style. I don't like to copy, I just want to do things my way. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, even if I'm the only one doing it. It's a shame that others still don't understand, but it's okay.
You're bringing change.
Yeah. So my food has a very modern style, it looks like modern and contemporary French, but the taste has an Asian focus. It's the natural umami. The presentation looks good, but the food also tastes good because everything is made with quality produce. That's what food should be.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.