In his native South Korea, Park Jae-kun made a name for himself as an inventive culinary artist. But for him, it is about more than technique. It’s about historical roots
At 39, Seoul-native Park Jae-kun looks half his age. If he wasn’t sporting a spotless white chef's uniform, his baby-face, bookish glasses and sporty silver timepiece might have him mistaken for a college student. But Jae-kun’s days of academic study are long gone. These days, the award-winning chef exerts much of his brain power on making food.
The chef, whose restaurant J8 opened on a Tuol Kork backstreet nine months ago, cooks what could be loosely described as “fusion” food. His dishes tango with ingredients, techniques and presentation styles slightly foreign to Korean cuisine. But they are all, as Jae-kun explained enthusiastically through a translator, intrinsically connected to a Korea of yore.
“In Korean cuisine, there is a thousands-of-years-old concept called ‘five colours, five flavours’,” he said, illustrating the ancient theory with his big hands. “If you balance the five colours, you’re balancing the nutritional value of the food. If you balance the five flavours, you’re balancing the taste of the food.”
Behind the chef was a wall of photos of celebrities taken at his Seoul restaurant, with a smaller collection from his Tuol Kork eatery off to the side. On the table in front of him lay a smorgasbord of Korean delicacies: bulgogi (thin slices of marinated steak with onions and peppers, $10), bibimbap (a potpourri of rice, egg, beef and veggies, $6), to sok chon (chicken soup with juju beans and ginseng, $10) and a bounty of mouthwatering sides: “street-style” rice cake, fried potato pancakes, salted pork cubes, a tray of fresh lettuce and cabbage leaves, and a white ceramic tray of blood-red kimchi. He changes the sides menu every day.
To Jae-kun, each delicious dish is like a paragraph in a history book, each food’s origin explainable by some obscure historical happening.
Bulgogi came from Mongol cattle-slaughtering techniques. Korean rice porridge from one lecherous emperor’s concubines. Bibimbap from ancestral worship. Most of his explanations seemed plausible. Some edged into folklore. He gestured towards the kimchi.
“Originally, kimchi was not red, it was white. The chili is the last of its ingredients that came to Korea. At the end of the 16th century, there was a massive war with Japan. The Japanese introduced chili to Korea because they thought it was harmful for your body and would weaken the Korean soldiers. But the Koreans added it to kimchi and they found it helped in the fermenting process.”
While his stories might be hard to swallow, with credentials like Jae-kun’s, he ought to know what he’s talking about. The chef’s 21-year career began at age 17 in a Seoul hotel. Two years later, when he had to enter mandatory military service, he was unexpectedly chosen as head chef for the Minister of National Defense. At that time, in 1995, there were few professionally trained chefs in South Korea, Jae-kun said, and even fewer that still had to undergo military service.
Jae-kun cooked the minister’s meals for two years and two months. After his service, he bounced around the Korean corporate culinary scene before working again for the armed forces, this time cooking for American officers at the US-operated Osan air base. He was 26.
It would be a short-lived stint; Jae-kun was forced to leave because he struggled to pass his mandatory English exam. He went on to cook in some of Seoul’s finest restaurant, accruing dozens of awards in the process, before being picked up by Black Knight, the corporation that owns J8 and its 14 other branches in Asia (Jae-kun’s is the first location in Cambodia and he is largely given free rein with the menu).
There is a reason why the chef chose to build his restaurant in Tuol Kork; the area is home to the largest concentration of Koreans in the capital. According to Yang Sung-mo, 57, chairman of the Korean Association, an independent cultural group in Phnom Penh, hundreds of Korean families live in Tuol Kork’s South Korean-built Camko City residential complex and more than a dozen Korean restaurants have set up shop nearby. To Jae-kun, the Korean enclave was a major draw.
“I wanted to open a restaurant in an area where there was already lots of other Korean restaurants,” he said. “My idea was for [my restaurant] to be kind of like a community within a sort of Korea-town.”
Jae-kun said that when he decided to enter the culinary world, his friends didn’t understand why. “Chefs were not highly regarded in Korea,” he explained. It wasn’t until one night at Osan, when he received applause for a feast he put together, that Jae-kun realised the value of a good chef.
“Today, when I talk with my friends, a lot of them tell me, ‘You made the right decision.’”
But since relocating to Cambodia – his first time living abroad – Jae-kun sees himself as something more than a chef.
“I am also a cultural ambassador,” he said, adding that he plans to open up a cooking school.
“Somebody’s got to do it,” he explained with a characteristic grin. “Somebody’s got to tell people about Korean food.”