A total of 24 restaurants in the South Korean capital received Michelin stars, reflecting the city’s ambitions as a fine-dining hub and the emergence of Korean cuisine from the well-established shadows cast by those of neighbors China and Japan.
“I think it’s widely seen as one of the hidden gems of world cuisine,” said Michael Ellis, the international director of Michelin guides.
Of the two restaurants to receive three stars, Gaon in Seoul’s upmarket Gangnam area offers two multi-course menus based on the daily meals enjoyed by the kings of the Joseon era (1392-1910) and priced at 180,000 won ($157) and 250,000 won.
The guide cited Gaon for its “meticulously-prepared dishes” and commitment to promoting a “better understanding” of Korean food.
Gaon’s executive chef Kim Byoung-Jin said he was stunned and “extremely honoured” with the three-star rating, crediting his kitchen team and an insistence on the finest seasonal produce.
“All good food starts from fresh ingredients,” he told AFP.
Having spent the past 13 years honing his take on traditional Korean cuisine, Kim said he hoped the ultimate stamp of approval from Michelin would help South Korean gastronomy “receive the appreciation it deserves”.
“In order for Korean cuisine to be universalized, it must meet a universal standard and I think the Michelin listing will help Korean food become a more approachable cuisine for many people,” he said.
Of the 21,000 restaurants featured in Michelin guides around the world, just over 100 are rated with three stars. Starred restaurants have in the past built big businesses after being recognised.
The other three-star recipient was La Yeon in the Hotel Shilla, which was praised by Michelin for the chef’s contemporary touch on traditional Korean cuisine.
Following the 2007 publication of the Tokyo guide – Michelin’s first foray into Asia – Seoul is the latest city in the region to get its own version of the culinary bible.
There are also editions exploring Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.
“Seoul is a gastronomic roller coaster,” Ellis said. “There’s so many things going on: brining, pickling, fermenting, frying, barbequing, seasoning… great techniques,” he added.
Among the one-star recipients was Balwoo Gongyang, a popular lunch and dining spot which serves strictly vegetarian dishes based on Korean Buddhist “temple” cuisine.
Lucia Cho, the owner of Gaon and of another restaurant, Bicena, which was awarded one star, said it had initially been a struggle to marry Korean cuisine and fine dining – not least because of resistance among Koreans themselves.
“When we first opened Gaon, not many people appreciated the value of Korean food and complained about our pricing,” Cho said.
“But people pay 300,000 won on Japanese or Chinese course meals,” she said, adding that attention from Michelin would “make Koreans think more about what defines good food”.
Not everyone was impressed by the Michelin choice.
Joe McPherson, founder of the country’s oldest food blog, ZenKimchi.com, had given Gaon a damning review back in 2007.
“It’s the poster child for everything wrong with Korean concepts of fine dining. They just took basic Korean food, made it a little prettier and jacked up the price,” McPherson said after the Michelin launch.
The two and three-star restaurants on the list “felt like they had been put together by Korean businessmen, rather than food lovers”, he added.
The Michelin guides, first published in France more than a century ago to promote automobile travel, now cover 28 countries and spotlight diverse cuisines including Brazilian, Burmese, Cajun, Peruvian and Tibetan.