By Chris Dwyer
Mar 30, 2022
IN A WORLD WHERE SHOUTY celebrity chefs with stratospheric egos can be the par for the course, it’s incredibly refreshing to meet someone at the absolute other end of the scale.
Jeong Kwan has been a Buddhist monk at Baekyangsa temple in the forest-covered mountains of South Korea for almost half a century. Quietly and with total modesty, she has carried forward the ancient tradition of Korean temple cuisine, vegan food that nourishes the mind and planet as much as the body.
You may well recognize her gentle, almost permanent smile from the third season of the Netflix smash Chef’s Table, where her ethereal food wowed luminaries such as Eric Ripert from New York’s three-starred Le Bernardin.
Now, after working for 20 years to share the wisdom of Korean temple cuisine, the woman who says that her food exists to preserve the wellbeing of Earth and all its sentient beings has been given the Icon Award in the 2022 edition of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
We spoke to her via Zoom – you’ll be relieved to know that even Buddhist monks have connection issues – and were utterly charmed by her profound but gentle wisdom on everything from food waste to finding peace in a world racked with conflict.
T+L SEA: Many congratulations on winning the Asia’s 50 Best Icon Award for 2022. How did you feel on hearing the news?
Jeong Kwan: When I first heard the news, I was in the monastery. I was delighted and it has been a wonderful experience to win the Icon Award for 2022 in Asia’s 50 Best. Korean chefs and chefs all around the world have been in touch to congratulate me so it’s been really nice to reconnect with some of them. I also received well wishes from a local Buddhist monk association here — they sent me a plant to congratulate me!
T+L SEA: You’ve said that Korean temple food connects the body and the mind. Please elaborate.
Jeong Kwan: Food is the source of my energy to continue my practice as a Buddhist monk.
I firmly believe that food plays a role in creating energy by connecting the physical, mental and spiritual. Food changes us, our bodies, our personalities.
Korea has four distinct seasons and through those seasons the food that we eat changes. The different foods connect us physically, mentally and spiritually to nature. People have a past, a present and a future and food is the one thing, the energy source that connects all of those together. That becomes my identity.
T+L SEA: Food waste is a chronic global issue. You use every part of every vegetable?
Jeong Kwan: Whatever comes from the earth is medicine; it is always good for your body. We must respect all the elements which help the plants grow – the sunlight and moonlight, the rain, the soil, all the nutrition. By not throwing anything away and reducing food waste, eating the entire vegetables – the roots, stems, leaves, fruit, everything – we are contributing to balance and harmony in nature and helping to save the environment.
T+L SEA: How do you see the future of Korean temple food? Are there young monks following your example?
Jeong Kwan: Obviously because of Covid people are more interested than ever in health and their immune systems and the answer is a vegan diet. A few young chefs are currently staying at the temple to learn. One graduated from Culinary Institute of America. These are chefs who have been working abroad but wanted to find and understand more about their roots and the basis of Korean food.
So, the future of temple cuisine isn’t only limited to monks here in the monastery, but lots of people want to come and learn, understand the philosophy of the Buddhist vegan diet and the ingredients.
T+L SEA: How do you eat when you travel? For example, when you were in New York, did you visit many restaurants?
Jeong Kwan: I was lucky enough that when I went to New York, chef Eric Ripert prepared a 100-percent vegan menu for me – I especially appreciated the vegan chocolate! Everything from start to finish was vegan and I loved it. I also went with chef Eric to other vegan restaurants.
In Korea I have eaten at Mingles by Mingoo Kang; he makes a special menu for me to ensure it’s vegan. A lot of chefs here actually really enjoy when I visit because they can play with ingredients and make vegan-friendly menus for their restaurants at the same time. I’ve never had any issues when I traveled and have always been able to have vegan food.
I also always carry my stash of Korean bean paste, kimchi and pickles when I travel!
T+L SEA: There are lots of troubles in the world at the moment. As a Buddhist, how do you view and deal with issues like the war in Ukraine and coronavirus?
Jeong Kwan: There’s a lot of hate, anger and selfishness in this world. People don’t respect nature or each other. But change starts within all of us, so you need positive thoughts, good food, good energy — that small change within you, can help make a bigger change.
We need to respect life. By focusing on the impact of climate change and environmental destruction while respecting life, we can make the world a better place. Good food creates good energy and reflects how we live our lives.