How a Buddhist Monk Became One of Asia’s Most Revered Chefs

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(CNN) — It’s a busy Saturday morning for Jeong Kwan, a South Korean Buddhist monk.

After your morning meditation practice and breakfast, she tends her garden inside Baekyangsa, a temple in the picturesque Naejangsan National Park, south of Seoul.

The air is filled with the scent of blooming coriander flowers. A wild deer nibbles the leaves in the garden.

Eggplants and green peppers are growing. The cabbages she planted over the winter are plump and ready to be picked.

“It’s beautiful because it has a lot of energy – it grew during the cold winter,” the monk told CNN Travel through a translator, spreading her palms apart to demonstrate the size of this year’s cabbages.

The accidental star chef

Jeong Kwan dedicated himself to Buddhism when he was 17 years old.

Courtesy of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

Jeong Kwan – his Buddhist name – is no ordinary monk. Their temple cuisine was endorsed by celebrity chef Éric Ripert of Le Bernardin in a 2015 New York Times profile written by food journalist Jeff Gordinier. An entire episode of the popular Netflix series “Chef’s Table” was dedicated to her.
Most recently, she received the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Icon Award in 2022. Voted by more than 300 members of the award’s academy, it celebrates culinary figures who have positively influenced and inspired others.

However, little has changed in his world.

“I am extremely honored to receive the Icon Award… As you already know, I am a monk, not a trained chef. It is wonderful to know that people all over the world are interested in Korean cuisine,” says Jeong Kwan.

“Even with so much praise, I need to stay humble and not let pride invade my heart. Genuine sincerity is how I greet every person I meet.”

The chef turned to Buddhism in 1974, but says she still feels like a teenager at heart — even as her age and spirituality have grown.

Unlike many, she already had a notion of the life she wants to live at a young age. She was in elementary school when she told her father that when she grew up she would live alone with nature.

When Jeong Kwan was 17 years old, his mother passed away.

“I was sad and after 50 days I went to a temple. There I met other monks who became my new family. I found enlightenment and joy in the practice of Buddhism. So I decided that this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life, practicing Buddhism “, she says.

Three years into her practice, she moved into her current home, Baekyangsa.

“The path to the temple was very smooth – not bumpy or steep. I felt very calm and peaceful. It was like coming back to my mother’s arms”, Jeong Kwan remembers his first walk to Baekyangsa.

That was 45 years ago.

What is temple cuisine

All of Jeong Kwan's dishes are vegan.

All of Jeong Kwan’s dishes are vegan.

Courtesy of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

In 2013, Jeong Kwan decided to open the temple doors to visitors so he could connect with people who want to learn about Buddhism – especially through its cuisine.

“Temple food is the connection that unites physical and mental energy. It’s about maximizing the flavor and nutrition of plant-based ingredients with limited seasonings or added seasonings,” she says.

“The temple kitchen is part of my Buddhist practice and the journey of finding yourself. The people who cook and the people who eat the temple food are all on a journey to find out ‘Who am I?’ I think Korean temple cuisine connects people and will continue to play that role.”

All dishes at Jeong Kwan are vegan and made without garlic, onions, chives, chives or leeks. (The five pungent ingredients are believed to disturb the peace of mind by evoking anger and passion.)

Your food is made with the freshest organic ingredients, as well as fermented sauces and dishes like bean paste and kimchi – all grown or made in the temple.

There is no set menu – she works with whatever fresh produce that day, so the dishes vary a lot.

Jeong Kwan believes that food can help balance the elements in our bodies, restoring our moisture or lowering our body temperature to a harmonious state. One example is doenjang – Korean fermented bean paste – which the monk often uses to create this balance in his food. But doing doenjang is a long process.

She and the other temple residents start boiling and mashing soybeans in November. Then they are molded into meju – soy bricks – for drying and storage. In April, salt water is added to the meju. In May, the temple’s monks separate the salt water – which at this stage is now soy sauce – from the bean paste.

“If you come to visit, you will see the part of the temple where we keep all the traditional ingredients – pastes and sauces – in pots. I have them all labeled so they are very organized. It is a very beautiful place,” he said. says Jeong Kwan, her eyes lighting up as she talks about her food.

“This year’s bean paste is very tasty because the weather is perfect. It’s very sunny during the day and still very cold at night.”

She has pots of soy sauce, bean paste and harvested radishes that have been fermented in pots for over two decades. These are your most precious creations in the temple.

“I will bring them if I have to move to another temple one day,” jokes Jeong Kwan.

“It’s nature’s work. It’s magical how, by fermenting, you change the energy of the original ingredient. Harvested radishes no longer have the energy of radishes, but have incorporated the energy of the fermented sauces and harmonize our bodies.”

Buddhism and human connections through food

“For me, food is so important. It can bring such a strong connection between people,” says Jeong Kwan.

Courtesy of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

Jeong Kwan realized that he had a passion for food from a very young age, as he watched his mother cook.

In 1994, she decided to dedicate herself fully to temple cooking.

“For me, food is so important. It can bring such a strong connection between people,” says Jeong Kwan.

One of her fondest memories is her father’s visit to the temple.

“‘Why do you want to stay here — you can’t even eat meat here?'” she remembers him asking.

“I made him a mushroom dish and after he tasted it, he said, ‘I’ve never tasted anything so delicious. If you can eat something so tasty here, I won’t worry about you. You stay in the temple.'”

But not all of your fondest food-related memories took place in your own kitchen. Jeong Kwon was able to enjoy some amazing meals while traveling abroad.

Once, at the Parisian restaurant Alain Passard, the famous French chef of the same name prepared a vegan meal for her.

“While I was eating, I felt that this is my food. There was no barrier in the food. It is very comforting and I felt very much at home,” says the monk.

She also has a special place in her heart for Le Bernardin’s Ripert.

“Chef Éric was one of the people who really set me free with my food. He helped break any thoughts people might have against temple cooking or vegan food. He really helped me come out of my shell,” says the monk. .

Being free is not “doing what you want”, adds Jeong Kwan.

“It’s not feeling caged by remorse and guilt because you’re not following the practices you believe in. So following all the virtues of my practice is what makes me truly free,” she says.

A prime example for her is cooking with an understanding of the natural cycles of life as well as following Buddhist teachings and virtues.

‘Cooking is not being fancy’

Jeong Kwan hopes he can use his newfound influence to encourage others to be more environmentally conscious.

Jeong Kwan hopes he can use his newfound influence to encourage others to be more environmentally conscious.

Courtesy of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

Jeong Kwan feels his philosophy is especially important in today’s world, fraught with challenges such as the pandemic, international conflicts and climate change.

“We’ve had pandemics and epidemics before. I believe that all of this is correlated with our actions against nature”, says the monk.

She thinks society should focus on three important things: fighting climate change, being more environmentally friendly and respecting all lives.

“[By doing all three,] will be able to help us get back on track,” says Jeong Kwan.

Conscious eating and cooking will allow us to “do whatever we need to do spiritually and physically” even in times of adversity.

She looks forward to using her newfound influence to spread these important messages to the world.

“For me, cooking is not about being fancy or showing off difficult skills, but about becoming one with the ingredients. When I’m cooking, I think of the ingredients as if they are part of me. By using water and fire to cook vegetables, I feel like we’ve become one .

“The heart and soul that goes into the food will be welcomed by the people who eat it and create a positive and sustainable cycle,” says Jeong Kwan.

Your objective? Seeing others adopt a lifestyle that honors and respects nature and our environment, promotes a sustainable lifestyle and has a positive effect on climate change and saves lives.

“To do that, I need to change. Small actions start with myself and I hope I can share that with more people around the world, including the wonderful chefs in the Asia 50 Best community,” says Jeong Kwan.

baekyangsa is a temple inside the picturesque Naejangsan National Park, about 3 hours by bus from Seoul. There is an entrance fee of KW3,000 (or US$2.5) for day visitors. You can also participate in one of their temple stay programsincluding the Temple Food Experience Program featuring a cooking class with Jeong Kwan.

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