Posted : 2009-06-24 20:36
Updated : 2009-06-24 20:36

Going High-End Helps Globalize Korean Food

Kwangjuyo CEO Cho Tae-kwon
By Kim Hyun-cheol
Staff Reporter

Food Culture CEO Suggests More Engagement From Conglomerates

Korea wants its food, hansik, known and enjoyed in more parts of the world, but opinions still vary about this possibility. Some say it is possible at any time once it gains more exposure overseas, while others are endlessly skeptical about its gaining credits other than in some limited parts of the world.

On this issue, the opinion of Cho Tae-kwon, CEO of local ceramic ware maker Kwangjuyo, is provocative but straight to the core. The entrepreneur says an ``inferiority complex'' within Korea and its people, as well as prevailing self-complacence, is the highest hurdle in the way to the globalization of Korean cuisine.

``I'm afraid to say the concept of 'globalization of hansik' is sort of misleading here,'' Cho told The Korea Times. ``It should not be just about showing off some exotic-looking dishes like a speed date. It should make global citizens feel interested and enchanted in what we usually eat and drink.''

And interestingly, he claims the real globalization of Korean food will never be achieved as long as Korean people ``don't take their own food seriously.'' In a severe, but direct criticism, he says Korea is not yet fully ready to promote its food overseas.

``To most people here, Korean food is nothing more than what they have at most mealtimes and they consider it a waste of money to try different and pricier Korean dishes,'' he said. ``How can we expect our own food to be promoted on the global stage when it's still left out in the cold at home?''

Cho worries Korea's lack of cultural assets could hinder further globalization of its cuisine in the future. It is a serious shortcoming in Korean food, according to him, as most currently well-known cuisines, such as French and Japanese, have constantly added value in their history and tradition.

Cho’s Tips (5)
● Make Food Cultural Experience
● Get Corporations Involved

``Even back in history, food has actually never been at the center of Korean culture,'' he pointed out. ``And to make it worse, Korea has lost a lot of its cultural legacies during the drastic industrial growth in its modern history, as in the traditional liquors that had to be lurking in the shadow throughout the authoritarian period.''

His analysis might sound too reprimanding, but he has reason to stand firm on that view. Cho has been devoted to having traditional Korean culture, especially its cuisine, recognized more overseas, in efforts to link his products to contemporary cultural disciplines.

To appreciate a cuisine ultimately means to enjoy a culture to the fullest, the CEO thinks. Not only the tastes, presentations and healthiness of the food, but other factors such as its containers, tableware and accompanying liquors are all combined to make an impression that is imprinted on those who eat it.

And in that regard, Korean cuisine has a long way to go, Cho says, and the whole country could need some Copernican switchover in our own viewpoints.

``The whole concept of Korean food should be rewritten to make it better known,'' he said. ``Now that we can obtain more various ingredients and cooking skills from all around the world, much more flexible boundaries are allowed in the cuisine than before. We need to break out of that narrow definition that only traditional recipes with home-grown ingredients can be called hansik.''

What he has been doing so far is in line with what he claims. His past efforts to promote Korean food have been somewhat unconventional _ while others were focused on introducing basic dishes and ingredients, he strode further to show people outside Korea the best that the cuisine can offer.

He opened the Gaon, a high-end Korean restaurant, in a chic district of southern Seoul in 2003. Specialized in hanjeongsik, or Korean table d'hote, the Gaon was in pursuit of the superlative in as far as quality was concerned, along with fresh attempts to create modernized new dishes in both Seoul and its Chinese branch in Beijing.

Also, in 2007, he hosted a huge festival in Napa Valley, California, in an unprecedented attempt aimed at introducing Korean food to U.S. wine makers and vineyard owners.

Some of those were successful and some were not. The ambitious Gaon was closed down at the end of last year, and now he runs Hwayo, a distiller of traditional liquors, and another Korean-style pub franchise Knock Knock, the only food-related affiliates of Kwangjuyo.

However, he said they are like pilot projects for more to come in the future in the big picture.

``Most of all, I wanted to show the world how far hansik could go in its way to be a haute cuisine. And I think the outcome wasn't that bad,'' Cho said.

What saddens him when it comes to Korean food is that it is, like some other parts of Korean culture, missing out on opportunities to raise its recognition around the world, buried and overwhelmed in authenticity and originality. In his opinion, hansik should escape some of its deep-rooted stereotypes first for its globalization, including its unique ``all-on-one-table'' style.

For him, this is particularly true as he is working in a field that Korea had originality in, but lost its way _ pottery. Even though Japan ``purloined'' Korean style pottery during a war between the two countries in the 16th century, differences in preserving culture led to sharply contrasting results.

While Korea kept its traditional culture and did nothing to revive it in the modern era, Japan took aggressive moves to re-invent it and create new things in the transplanted tradition. As a consequence, now the whole world recognizes Japanese ceramic ware, but not that of Korea.

``Korea could manage to promote a couple of dishes to the world, but it's not important at the end of the day. Without parallel promotion, their name would just be snatched by other countries just like our porcelain was,'' Cho said.

Moves to promote our food should be done steadily, and they all start from our own efforts to appreciate what we have and further add value to it, Cho said. In addition, even though the government is rolling up its sleeves in the project, more engagement by local conglomerates could be more helpful in the globalization of hansik, he added.

Cho suggested one of them should establish a high-end Korean restaurant franchise with a signature location within the heart of Seoul as one of the city's landmarks.

``Conglomerates here have money and organization, which means they are already in the box seat if only they had their mind set on the project,'' he said.

A ``top-down'' approach will be useful in promoting food in the end, he added, saying, ``Once high-end dishes touch off a boom on the global stage, popularity of cheaper and more common items will naturally follow.''
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