SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) For South Korean-born chef Kim Dae Chun, cooking is more than just a livelihood - it is like spending time with an old friend.
"When I was six years old, I started making my own meals because my parents were so busy working. I had two older sisters but both of them would be at school, so I cooked my own ramyeon every day, except on weekends, and I always found it a fun thing to do," he says.
Now, at age 37, it seems his three decade-long relationship with food is finally paying off. At the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony in Bangkok on Feb 21, Chef Kim's restaurant Toc Toc (French for 'knock knock') was named the Miele One To Watch - a title given to a rising star in the Asian dining scene. The award is the first in Asia to be presented by the German appliance maker, which also sponsored the same award in last year's World's 50Best awards.
"Miele is all about great results and to deliver great results, you need great appliances and great chefs," says Mario Miranda, Miele's regional managing director. "On the one hand we support their talent and they support us - it's a good collaboration where we learn from each other and have a shared vision."
Butternut Squash Veloute
1kg butternut squash
220g chicken stock
Salt to season
50g John Dory (or any fish with white flesh)
Oil for frying the fish
For the soup:
1. Peel the butternut squash, and dice it into 2mm squares.
2. Dice the onion into 3mm squares.
3. Put the butter and the onions together in the pot, and stir-fry on low heat for 27 minutes.
4. When the onions become yellowish, add the butternut squash and stir-fry on low heat until it is cooked.
5. When the butternut squash is cooked, turn off the heat and close the lid and leave to rest for 20 minutes.
6. After this, add milk and chicken stock; blend it in the blender.
7. Put the blended mixure over the hob and season with salt. Simmer and add cream, season with salt to taste again.
For the John Dory:
1. Put some salt on the fish and wrap it with kadaif noodle
2. Deep-fry the noodle-wrapped fish in 180 deg. C oil, until golden brown. Remove and set aside.
1. Spoon the butternut squash soup into a bowl, and place fried John Dory on top, and spray truffle oil. Garnish with baby leaves.
To mark the occasion, Chef Kim teamed up with Gaggan Anand - who topped the Asia's 50Best list for the third time - for a brunch event hosted by Miele at Meatlicious, Chef Anand's new eatery. The casual, meat-centric eatery saw Chef Kim serving a Korean-inspired menu that included a yellowtail sashimi ceviche, crabmeat tofu with aged vinegar dressing and a seafood pancake.
Toc Toc opened in Apgujeong, Seoul, in April 2013, and it serves a menu that highlights seasonal Korean ingredients cooked with modern techniques inspired by international cuisines including French, Italian, and Japanese.
"I grew up eating Korean food, but I've always loved Western cuisine like French and Italian. My parents travelled a lot around the world and I accompanied them, so I am familiar with Western food and that's naturally why I cook that kind of cuisine," explains Chef Kim.
It was not exactly a life-long dream for him to become a chef, however. He only started cooking seriously when he was 23, after a holiday to Japan made him fall in love with Japanese ramen. It was then that he packed up his things and moved to Tokyo where he attended culinary school studying French cuisine.
Prior to that, Chef Kim harboured dreams of becoming a professional drummer, and was even part of a band back in his youth. After all, music was another of his "life companions" when he was growing up.
He recalls: "There was a major financial crisis in Korea in 1997, and my family business was destroyed then. It was during that time when I was alone in my room with my puppy, that I found the room was getting too silent. So I listened to my music, and I think that it healed me."
As he got older however, he felt a growing affinity for cooking, and decided to pursue it as a career. "When I was doing music, sometimes it could be very depressing because I couldn't do it very well. But as a cook, even though my cooking may not be the best every day, it never makes me feel bad. I find that I'm always happy when I'm cooking," he says.
Of course being an ex-drummer has its perks. "It helps with my chopping, I can do it with rhythm. And cooking requires me to use my muscles a lot, so drumming training has certainly helped," says Chef Kim with a grin.
Though he does not cook Korean food in his restaurant, Chef Kim hopes that he can in some way contribute to the growing Korean fine dining scene. This begins with being aware and proud of his country's local produce.
"During the five years I was studying in Japan, I worked under chef Naoto Kishimoto at L'embellir in Tokyo. Chef Kishimoto, who was my manager, had spent 10 years travelling around Japan to search for the best local ingredients. In that time he had found not just the ones that tasted best, but also the ones that were good for health," says the chef.
So when he returned to Korea in 2008, Chef Kim not only paid his dues by working at a number of restaurants in Seoul, he also took a leaf out of his ex-boss' book. He dedicated some time to travelling around South Korea in search of good quality, lesser-known ingredients that he could serve at his own restaurant. "This is also why I like to use less of things like sauces and spices, because I want to be able to showcase the essence of these ingredients," he says.
As for the bigger picture, Chef Kim says: "To grow the food culture in Korea, I believe it's necessary to grow all parts of the cuisine. Not just Korean food, but also French and Italian food in Korea. Everything should get better so the food industry can grow together. I hope to see a good cook coming up in every section of Korean cuisine."