Savoring life is this chef’s recipe
An MBA student at Sungkyunkwan University talks on past, future
By Yun Suh-young
What is there to life? Nothing more than to enjoy every part of it, making use of all of the ingredients bestowed upon you, and adding just a little spice ― different ones ― every day.
That is how Ryu Jong-hyun, 32, is living his life. A former chef and aspirant entrepreneur, Ryu is now a student taking an MBA course at the Graduate School of Business at Sungkyunkwan University.
He says he lives every day “like a mayfly” ― meaning he tries to live each day as if it’s his last.
“I’m very action-based. I like to do things when I have the opportunity. If I can’t do it now, I won’t be able to do it in the future,” said Ryu during a recent interview. “I don’t want to be conscious about what other people think. If I think it’s the right time, I plunge into whatever I feel like doing.”
He traveled to 25 countries as a college student during which he became attracted to the world of cooking. Though he majored in English literature, he decided to become a chef. After graduating from college, he entered the Culinary Institute of America, one of the most prestigious culinary art schools in the United States.
After completing the two-year course, he decided to turn to marketing as he wanted to connect with people with something other than food. That’s why he applied for the MBA program.
A turning point
What made him live his life so dynamically?
“It was my brother’s accident,” he said. “When I was in college, my younger brother suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and became partially paralyzed. He had to spend months in hospital to receive rehab treatment. It took him days to move his finger. It was through him that I got to reflect on my life and realized I shouldn’t waste it.”
Ryu began to focus on his studies. While studying English, however, he became curious about the world outside this country.
“I decided to go on a world tour. I loved traveling, meeting new people and encountering new food. Whenever I went somewhere, I would cook for them and they would cook for me. Cooking was a global language we could communicate through. I loved the feeling that food could connect people so I decided to learn everything about it,” said Ryu.
He successfully entered the top cooking school in the United States, but a rocky road lay ahead.
“An amateur like me had to compete with students who had been cooking since their teenage years. I didn’t even know the names of the ingredients in English. So every weekend I went to the supermarket to memorize them,” said the young chef.
After graduating from the institute, Ryu worked at two of the most famous restaurants in New York. One was Momofuku, a restaurant owned by the Korean chef David Chang which has been placed in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Ranking for three consecutive years since 2009, and the other was Masa, a Japanese restaurant which received three stars from the Michelin Guide.
“One thing I especially liked about these two places was that they were ‘open kitchen’ restaurants,” said Ryu. “Usually, the kitchen and dining areas are separated in other restaurants. But the advantage of an open kitchen restaurant was that I could check the reactions of our customers spontaneously while cooking. I loved the fact that I could see people enjoying the food. I think that was a successful marketing strategy.”
Ryu said he became interested in marketing since then.
“It was while I was working at Masa that I realized the power of marketing. New York is really noisy but once you enter Masa, you feel like you’re in a temple far away in the mountains. That looked very attractive to me,” he said.
A future chef trainer
Deciding to enter an MBA program to learn further about marketing, he came to Korea. After being accepted by Sungkyunkwan University, he plunged himself into a new challenge. He went on a survival cooking show called “Yes, Chef” hosted by Edward Kwon, a Korean chef famous for his flamboyant career as a global chef.
“Before the school semester began, I read a book by Philip Kotler called, High Visibility: The Making and Marketing of Professionals into Celebrities translated as Personal Marketing in Korean. I wanted to try marketing myself. So I went on the show,” said Ryu.
He was one of the twelve contestants selected from 1,000 people who applied. He remained until he was eliminated as one of the final six. After the show, he said he became quite well-known.
“I realized after the show that a brand called Ryu Jong-hyun was born. But I also realized that if you don’t manage your brand properly, people stop being interested in you.”
When asked how he would continue personal marketing in the future, he said he wanted to build his brand as a chef trainer.
“I want to groom talented chefs like celebrity managers bring up entertainers. I’d rather be a brand manager and a trainer than be a chef myself,” said the young man.
Does that mean he will quit cooking?
“No,” he said. “It’s just that I don’t want to make money out of cooking. I liked the purity of cooking as an art. Once it became commercial and routine, I lost interest. I don’t want to produce food like a machine.”
Still, he said he ultimately wanted to cook, but for selected customers who could appreciate the meal as given.
“I want to run a small restaurant somewhere in the southern hemisphere later in life. I want to cook for a limited amount of people every day with random ingredients that are the most fresh that day. Masa’s chef cooked like that. He cooked with random ingredients selected that day and customers didn’t know what to expect until the meal was in front of them.”
Perhaps that’s the philosophy of a mayfly. Appreciating what is given that day and making the most out of it. Ryu definitely seemed to know how to use the recipe for life.