Monday, 31 August 2015

Interview | Joo Won, head chef at Galvin at WINDOWS, Hilton Park Lane, London

Salad of clam & quinoa

Braised short rib ( Galbi JJIm)

Fig and blue cheese ice cream & ginseng honey

Iberico pork ssam ( Bossam)

Chef Won and manager

Kitchen team

I was informed that Joo Won, the South Korean head chef of Galvin at WINDOWS, had developed a special Korean fine-dining six-course tasting menu for August.

This immediately caught my interest. I wanted to find out more about how a French influenced restaurant with one Michelin star would carry this off and present a taste of Korea. Upon looking at the website, the tasting menu looked excellent but at £110 per head, it was clearly an expensive experience.

Head Chef, Joo Won, was born in the city of Busan, which is near my home town, Masan. This means we are same the Kyungsando people, known as friendly bunch and with great seafood.

I emailed the restaurant speculatively to chance my arm at interviewing the head chef and to discover the reason behind the new menu. As a food blogger, and without the name or weight of a major media outlet, I was not particularly optimistic about securing an interview. But, to my pleasant surprise, they replied very promptly and gave me a few dates to choose from.

We settled for lunchtime on 27 August and the restaurant kindly allowed me to meet his team in the kitchen and take some photos. Ahead of the interview, I prepared 12 questions that I wanted to ask Chef Won and read up on his background from the website.

Mr Won was born in Busan -- Korea's second biggest city after Seoul -- and studied industrial engineering at college. Despite his course, he soon realised that his heart belonged to the world of cooking. He gave up college and studied Korean Cuisine to follow his dream before going on to study hospitality management at Schiller International University in London and Switzerland.

Chef Won studied Le Cordon Bleu in Marylebone, London and worked at the Orrery restaurant in London, which gave him his first experience of working in a Michelin star kitchen. In 2006 he joined Gavin at WINDOWS as a founding team and became the Head Chef  in 2013. I thought this was a highly impressive CV and rise into the highest echelons of cooking in the capital.

Korean Tasting Menu:
  1. Salad of clams, quinoa, pear, cucumber & sesame
  2. Marinated Iberico pork Ssam pickled mooli & soy bean (Bossam)
  3. Pan-fried fillet of turbot, squid, baby shrimp & sweet chilli
  4. Braised short rib of beef, Galbi, white kimchi, stuffed courgette. potato & crispy anchovies (Galbi jjim)
  5. English figs, blue cheese ice cream & black rice ice cream & ginseng honey
  6. Herbaceous sponge, sweet red bean cream, blueberries & black ice cream
The menu seemed well balanced for a fine dining Korean menu with a modern touch. Bossam (slow cooked pork wrapped in lettuce) used Spanish Iberico pork. Galbi Jjim featured crispy anchovy and was effectively a kind of surf & turf. Dessert featured black rice and green tea with Korean field sage sponge cake.

I arrived at the Hilton a little early and sat at the bar. Chef Won soon came in and said hello with a big friendly smile; we clicked almost as soon as we started talking. He answered all my questions with ease and a humble and honest manner.

1. You were trained in Korean cuisine and then came to London to study French cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu in London. I think you are the right person to introduce Korean fine dining here,  because you know both culture of cuisine. Do you agree?

Won: Thank you. We have been introducing Korean food into our regular menu such as kimchi risotto and had a good response. As a Korea-born chef, I always thought about extending this and alongside the manger and team had a research tip in Korea for a week. We were so impressed with the food culture there and loved the food. That trip was our inspiration to create something new.
The Korean Tourism Office helped us in this trip as well.

2. How would you say Korean cuisine is different than other Asian cuisine such as Chinese, Japanese and Thai?

Won: The deep taste of our sauces -- namely, soy sauce, soy bean paste and chilli paste. Our cuisine is based in this and our sauces are much deeper than other Asian countries.

3. What was the feedback like when you introduced kimchi and kimchi risotto into your regular menu?

Won: It was very positive and became popular. Korean food seasoning is different than western cuisine, and we season the food with light soy rather than salt to give the umami taste.

4. Why did you and your team go to Korea for research?

Won: Our restaurant, WINDOWS is keen do something different, and as I am a Korean-born, Korean cuisine seemed the right and natural choice. All the team had a tight and busy schedule but learnt a lot; the buzzing market scene was an unforgettable memory for the team. Visiting a soy paste making place was also very educational.

5. How did you choose the menu?

Won: The main ingredients are all from here in the UK but the sauces are all Korean.  This was my main aim -- the best ingredients coupled together with Korean techniques to made the tastiest food possible. This included the likes of Bossam cooked with Spanish Iberico pork and quality fish from here mixed with Korean chilli paste sauce and coriander oil.

7. Are you going to do it again?

Won: Yes, but not this year as we already have other plans in place. Next year though.

8.  As far as I know, WINDOWS has made history in introducing Korean fine dinning at a western (French) restaurant in London, you must be very proud of this?

Won: I am so pleased to have done this. It was hard work to get it right but I'm so proud and relieved by the good feedback from our customers.

9. Why do you think your tasting menu was a success?

Won: Mixing the best ingredients from here in the UK with Korean recipes and Korean sauce. That has been the key.

10.  London have many Korean restaurants but not many high end restaurants. There's the likes of Nobu for Japanese and Alan Yau's many for Chinese. Do you think Korean cuisine needs one now?

Won: Well, it would be nice to have fine dining restaurants for Korean cuisine but whoever has plan to do this might find it difficult to find good Korean chefs here in London. We need more chefs trained in Korean cuisine. This means training classic Korean cuisine to the young British-Koreans who live here, as well as developing a Korean cookery school (a proper one).

11. Do you think Korean food's popularity will stand the test of time like Japanese and Chinese?

Won: I am optimistic on this, Korea is no longer a small country. Travelling to Korea will help a lot as will the rise of Korean culture in things like art and film.

12.  Finally, if you could only choose two Korean ingredients (except kimchi) to take with you on a desert island, what would  they be?

Won (after a long pause): Ghochujang (chilli paste) and sesame oil. *I totally agree, that would be mine too!

After the interview, Joo kindly let me taste some of the courses on the menu.

First, I had grilled sea bass with pork bulgogi bedding. The chilli sauce was not too hot and also included coriander oil. It had so much flavour but was also delicate. I loved it.

Next up was Iberico Pork Ssam. Wow, I have never had such tasty and tender pork in my life. It was wonderful and cooked medium pink (he informed me only Iberico pork can be eaten as medium). The dish was unbelievably tender and contained chilli ssamjang with wild water mint and lettuce. Korean shiso leaves are not easy to get, so he used pickled wild water mint, whose taste was much like shiso -- even in texture. I did not know you can get Iberico pork, I love acorn fed Iberico ham with a good red wine

Dessert was a fig and blue cheese ice cream & ginseng honey. Very English yet very Korean.
He even made Korean style fermented sauce with fruit. This is an ancient recipe made contemporary
cuisine. In fact, everything in the menu is classically Korean but made with a contemporary twist. I thought this would be the perfect meal for high ranking foreign dignitaries who visit Korea but who might not be used to the spiciness of Korean food.

Talking to the team in the kitchen, they all seemed happy and eager to show me their creations, and asked me to try things out. It was a relaxed environment which means he must lead a happy team.

I feel very confident that Korean cuisine will be safe in Joo Won's hand for the next generation in London. It was also extremely comforting to know that Chef Won will do his best for his mission to introduce fine dinning Korean cuisine into London.

Won's kimchi resotto

Won's happy team member

Won's happy team

Chef Won and me at his busy kitchen
After finishing the interview he insisted taking me to the lift -- exactly as any polite young man would do to elders in Korea! How nice it was that he has not lost his Korean manners. He even said that his mum's cooking was far better than his own. How modest and decent!

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