At The New York Times Style Magazine, Jeff Gordinier profiles the most amazing chef you’ve never heard of: Jeong Kwan is a 59-year-old Zen Buddhist nun who cooks in a remote temple south of Seoul, South Korea. She has no restaurant, no customers, and no cookbooks, yet her vegan cuisine earns rave reviews from Michelin star chefs and restaurant critics alike.
Jeong Kwan has no restaurant. She has no customers. She has published no cookbooks. She has never attended culinary school, nor has she worked her way up through the high-pressure hierarchy of a four-star kitchen. Her name does not appear in any of those annual round-ups listing the greatest chefs in the world, although Ripert will assure you that she belongs among them, as do a few contemporaries of hers at temples throughout Korea.
Kwan is an avatar of temple cuisine, which has flowed like an underground river through Korean culture for centuries. Long before Western coinages like ‘‘slow food,’’ ‘‘farm-to-table’’ and ‘‘locavore,’’ generations of unsung masters at spiritual refuges like Chunjinam were creating a cuisine of refinement and beauty out of whatever they could rustle up from the surrounding land. Foraging? Fermenting? Dehydrating? Seasonality? Been there, done that — Jeong Kwan and her peers at monasteries throughout Korea have a millennia-spanning expertise in these currently in-vogue methods that can make a top chef feel like a clueless punk.
But Kwan’s lunch left me humbled and exhilarated. Here were compositions on the plate that were so elegant they could’ve been slipped into a tasting menu at Benu or Blanca and no one would have batted an eyelash. Here were flavors so assertive they seemed to leave vapor trails on the tongue. Somehow, all of it was vegan. Korean temple cuisine is made without meat, fish, dairy or even garlic or onions (which are believed to arouse the libido), and tasting it for the first time convinced me that vegan and vegetarian chefs in the West needed to board immediate flights to the Republic of Korea for a crash course in plant-based virtuosity.
But even if you can talk about food for hours, there comes a point when you need to make contact with it. Which is why Kwan has led us to the garden. Here, she coos over pumpkin blossoms, green chiles and eggplant, and shows me how to pluck leaves of mint and perilla — gently, with a moist pinch between my thumb and index finger at a firm spot on the stem. The leaves are placed in a wide basket; shortly they’ll be carried up the hill and incorporated into a meal. But for a moment I am encouraged to hold the leaves to my nostrils and breathe in their herbal fragrance.
Kwan believes that the ultimate cooking — the cooking that is best for our bodies and most delicious on our palates — comes from this intimate connection with fruits and vegetables, herbs and beans, mushrooms and grains. In her mind, there should be no distance between a cook and her ingredients. ‘‘That is how I make the best use of a cucumber,’’ she explains through a translator. ‘‘Cucumber becomes me. I become cucumber. Because I grow them personally, and I have poured in my energy.’’ She sees rain and sunshine, soil and seeds, as her brigade de cuisine. She sums it up with a statement that is as radically simple as it is endlessly complex: ‘‘Let nature take care of it.’’