The Michelin Guide Seoul 2017 has been published on November 7. The Michelin Guide has been regarded as one of the most prominent restaurant guides for more than a century throughout the world. It is known for its exclusive “star classification system”: three stars for exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey, two stars for excellent cooking, worth a detour, and one star for very good cooking in its category. In fact, Keunkiwajip, a restaurant in Jongno District near Sungkyunkwan University, has been listed on the Michelin Guide Seoul and was rated as “one star.” The Sungkyun Times (SKT) interviewed the owner Young-yong Han to share his insights as well as changes that the nominations may bring to the Korean restaurant industry.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself as well as your restaurant, please?
Well, I serve Korean-style food. I have been running Keunkiwajip since 1999, as I took over this restaurant from my mother who had first opened it in 1977. Keunkiwajip’s signature menu is Ganjang-gejang, which is “raw crab marinated in soy sauce” in English. Generally, when making soy sauce, people tend to boil it, whereas in Keunkiwajip’s way, we let the soy sauce take a rest in the shade, which adds a pungent flavor to it through fermentation. I think this is what differentiates us from other restaurants and is a staple of our success in attracting customers, including the ones visiting us even from afar.
|Michelin’s Star Classification System / guide.michelin.sg|
What do you think are the reasons behind Keunkiwajip’s success as a Michelin-starred restaurant? Did you notice when Michelin inspectors visited the restaurant?As I have mentioned earlier, I reckon Keunkiwajip’s soy sauce is a key factor that differentiates us from other restaurants. We were inspired by a Japanese sushi marketing strategy which emphasized Japan’s distinct characteristics. And what we thought was that, when it comes to Korean cuisine, a long list of fermented foods stood out as a distinctive feature. Among them, soy sauce is the most prominent. Although soy sauce is commonly shared in Asian culture, only in Korea is it produced with fermented soy beans. I think this unique method served as a source of innovation and competitive differentiation for our restaurant.
In terms of the Michelin inspectors, I never noticed that they had visited us at all. Approximately 70% of our customers are from abroad, so I had no knowledge whatsoever.
|Ganjang-gejang, Raw Crab Marinated in Soy Sauce|
As a Korean restaurant owner, what kind of influence do you expect that the Michelin Guide Seoul might have on the Korean restaurant industry?
Plants grow well if you furnish soil properly. Just like plants, the Korean restaurant industry could develop well, given the right conditions. For instance, Japan developed “sushi” as a national dish and people enjoy it all across the world. This is because there has been national support for sushi, especially in terms of marketing. In fact, Korea’s food marketing has not been very successful due to the absence of careful consideration or concrete plans as to furnishing soil for the food industry. I expect that the publication of the Michelin Guide Seoul can provide opportunities for Korea to think over how to develop the Korean restaurant industry in our own, unique way.
|Keunkiwajip’s Front Door|
When did you realize that your restaurant was on the list of the Michelin Guide Seoul? What is it like being an owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant?
As you may well know, the Michelin Guide Seoul was publicly announced on November 7. But the company actually contacted me a week before the announcement. I feel the weight of responsibility because I would like to live up to the public expectations and put forth an effort to carry on with my business. I also feel proud of my unique soy sauce, which has achieved such international recognition.
Some people are being critical about the Michelin Guide Seoul. What are your thoughts on this?
It is true that there are concerns about the Michelin Guide Seoul. Some people think that the results might actually be lacking a proper understanding of Korean cuisine because they assume that restaurants introduced by the Michelin Guide are much more appealing to the Western palate in general. However, for the Guide has been published for more than 100 years all over the world, I believe that it must have its own traditions and capacities. We should respect them and give them a big hand.
|A full-course Keunkiwajip meal with an array of side dishes|
Any last words for Kingos?
Enjoy what you are doing right now with your high spirits, just like our ancestors incorporated “play” with education. If the Korean restaurant industry needs fertile soil to flourish on, so do university students, even more. I hope what you learn in school is more than simply memorizing facts, but joyful experiences that can flourish our culture.
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