By Yun Suh-young
In just two years since opening in May 2014, owner chef Kang Min-goo’s Mingles seized a star from the Michelin Guide on Nov. 7.
Earlier this year, it was ranked 15th on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, the highest among the three Korean restaurants listed, beating La Yeon which recently received three Michelin stars.
Kang’s restaurant has caused quite a sensation in the local culinary scene since its opening as it has been coming up with experimental contemporary Korean cuisine using local ingredients that delighted the palate. Kang strives to portray the Korean identity through his dishes, including Korean elements into each course that characterise the culture. Most notable is the “Jang trio” dessert made of fermented soybean paste creme brulee with pecans marinated in soy sauce along with red pepper paste grains and vanilla ice cream.
Kang was trained at Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian, Spain, and later joined Nobu in Miami and the Bahamas before opening his restaurant in Seoul.
Kang said Korean cuisine is receiving quite a lot of attention these days, which he thinks helped win him a star.
“I think the timing was good. These days Korean food is receiving a lot of attention and the atmosphere is welcoming toward young chefs trying new things in Korean dishes,” said Kang during an interview with The Korea Times, Monday.
“The genres of cuisines that wouldn’t have been acknowledged before are also being accepted. Customers have grown open-minded to the variety of cuisines through their overseas experience. They see it as fresh and new. So I think we were able to grab their attention. Chefs cooking Western cuisine may feel a bit disappointed.”
Kang said he felt the Michelin Guide was much concentrated on Korean food rather than Western food as many others had pointed out.
“I definitely had the feeling that the Michelin Guide was focused on Korean food when I looked at the list. It seemed to give higher ratings for Korean cuisine than others. What I feel is unfortunate is that there are a lot of great restaurants in a variety of genres within Korean cuisine, but they weren’t included in the award,” said Kang.
“For example, in the Michelin Guide on Japan, a variety of genres of Japanese restaurants received stars ranging from ramen, sushi, kaiseki, and teppanyaki. That means Japanese cuisine has a wide base whereas Korean cuisine still needs to expand its base. But it’s the first year so we’ll have to wait and see.”
Kang seemed relieved to receive a star as he had been hoping for one.
“I think it’s especially meaningful because it’s the first year. When I first started cooking, all I wanted was just to be able to experience the kitchen scene. The Michelin Guide was an object of admiration. But now having received it, I feel honoured,” he said.
“I did desire a star but didn’t try particularly more to get it. We just did the best we could. If we don’t try our best, we would have regretted it no matter what the results were.”
He said he had no idea who the inspectors were when they came.
“I heard it was the same for other restaurants as well, but we really didn’t know who they were. We have a lot of foreign customers so at first we tried to observe the foreigners but there were too many of them. When there are many, we have up to 30 to 40 per cent foreign customers. So we gave up trying to figure them out,” he said chuckling.
“It wasn’t like we’d do better if we knew who they were. So we just decided to do our best whenever and whoever came.”
He said it was meaningful and exciting to see so much attention given to Korean cuisine, but pointed out it needs to widen its base and develop more evenly.
“The base is still weak compared to the countries that have highly developed culinary culture. Development must be even throughout the genres of cuisine and the price range should be wider from cheap and affordable food to fine dining,” said Kang.
“Also, in order for restaurants to come up with various dishes, they need good ingredients, distribution systems and customers who recognise them. The consumer market must develop to appreciate them.
“It’s important to boost the local consumer market. For instance, even if we do have a lot of foreign customers, we still need to be a restaurant that locals like to visit. More and more, people are starting to feel that it is worth spending money on food that can only be tasted in that particular venue.”
He says he feels a lot of pressure and responsibility to do better.
“As a chef working in this field of Korean cuisine, I feel a responsibility to do well. It’s no longer about enjoying my work; now I need to feel responsibility to do better,” said Kang.
“I feel grateful for the award considering my ability and the short amount of time that it took to get here. It’s only the beginning and now I have a new goal of living up to the reputation. I don’t want to be evaluated just by a list but by customers. If I obtain another star, I wish people would agree that I deserve it.”