Cho Hee-sook never sought recognition. Instead, the Korean chef focused on building a wealth of knowledge of her country’s culinary traditions to pass her learnings on to the new generations of cooks and ensure that Korean gastronomy could be honoured and preserved. In the process, she became a key figurehead and a point of reference for Korean chefs worldwide, while contributing to the growth and development of the nation’s cuisine into a globally recognised and respected food culture.
Cho started out as a home economics teacher in the Jeolla province of Korea in 1981, before moving to the capital to work as a chef in some of Seoul’s most renowned hotels for over 15 years. Here, she discovered that Korean cuisine wasn’t held in high regard – instead, the city’s most acclaimed fine dining restaurants were too often French and Italian. This realisation set her off on a life’s mission to elevate the reputation of Korean cuisine to be recognised on a global stage.
Her culinary career took her from Seoul’s kitchens to the position of chef for the South Korean ambassador in Washington, USA, in 2005. Later, she went back to Korea to research and teach her country’s recipes and gastronomic traditions at Woosong University. All the while, Cho has blazed a singular path in Korea’s gastronomic scene, becoming a mentor and an inspiration to many aspiring cooks.
Since 2016, Chef Cho took on the role of advisor and consultant for the country’s restaurants and hotels seeking to preserve Korean identity and traditions. In the same year, she also founded Hansikgongbang, a food research studio where she dedicated herself to furthering the knowledge of Korean cuisine. It was only in 2019 – 36 years after first unsheathing her knives in the kitchen – that Cho became the chef-owner of her own restaurant in Seoul.
At Hansikgonggan – an intimate, light-filled restaurant overseeing the ancient Changdeok Palace – the chef is now proposing her personal, refined interpretation of Korean cuisine, where she fuses the country’s centuries-old recipes with a modern outlook. Cho’s Bugak, a traditional Korean preparation, consists of vegetables, leaves and seaweed coated in a rice powder batter and lightly fried. For her signature dish Jeonbok Jat-Juk, the chef elevates the popular recipe of pine nut porridge by enriching it with abalone, scallop, shrimp and shiitake mushroom.
Cho’s influence on Korean cuisine has been felt worldwide, as the young cooks she mentored are now spreading her country’s cuisine beyond national borders and modernising it, each in their own style. Meanwhile, the chef’s main purpose still remains the same: to share authentic Korean food with the world.
And the world is taking notice. After becoming the godmother of Korean cuisine over the course of her career, Chef Cho is the deserving winner of the Asia’s Best Female Chef title – an honour she will no doubt use to keep spreading the gospel of true Korean cuisine all over the world.
Watch the video with Cho and read the interview with the chef:
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