Interview: Korea’s Top Chef Mingoo Kang Opens Up About His Love of Korean Cuisine

Owner of Korea's top restaurant Mingles in Seoul and winner of the 2021 Inedit Damm Chefs’ Choice Award, chef Mingoo Kang's star keeps rising.

Mingoo Kang, the owner of the top-rated restaurant in Korea, Mingles, is very passionate about Korean cuisine.

After returning to Seoul where he gained valuable work experience around the globe, Kang focused his attention on Korean cooking and traditional temple cuisine when starting his new venture in 2014 and introduced his signature style of melding eastern and western cuisines and techniques.

To refine his culinary philosophy, he consulted with local food experts, including Buddhist monk Jeong Kwan and respected chef Cho Hee-sook, the 2020 recipient of Asia’s Best Female Chef Award.

Drawing on his culinary heritage, Kang uses jang, a trio of Korean traditional fermented sauces, and seasonal local herbs to capture authentic Korean flavors. While Mingles’ inspired seven-course tasting menu honors traditional hansik, it also showcases Kang’s technical expertise, creative flair, and international experience.

The accolades for the star chef keep coming as he became the recipient of the 2021 Inedit Damm Chefs’ Choice Award which was voted by his fellow chefs on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list — an award that acknowledges Chef Kang’s contributions to Asia’s culinary scene.

Mingles also topped the restaurant list in Korea once again, a feat which he has retained for five consecutive years.

“His passion for innovation, while remaining true to tradition, has enabled him to evolve Korean cuisine to the point of delivering a gastronomic experience at the highest level. His creativity, experience, and culinary skills have earned him this well-deserved award, which has been voted for by his peers in the industry,” Berta Rius, Marketing Manager Asia and Pacific for Damm said.

In July 2020, Kang brought his innovative interpretation of Korean cuisine overseas for the first time with the opening of Hansik Goo in Hong Kong. Presenting a progressive interpretation of beloved Korean dishes, Hansik Goo celebrates one of the cornerstones of Korean culinary culture, the authentic, family-style dining experience.

I caught up with the very busy chef who dishes about his new venture, his love of Korean food, and what goes on behind the scenes at his restaurants.

Image: Choi Joon Ho

“I am a native Korean chef. Instead of studying at international culinary institutions, I gained my experience working at various locations around the globe – the US, Spain, France, the Bahamas – wherever I could enhance my culinary knowledge.” — Mingoo Kang

It’s been a very busy couple of years for you, yet you seem to keep achieving new heights as a chef and businessman. What would you say is your inspiration?

In the past, I was inspired by traveling and exploring various cuisine around the world. Mingles’ menu has reflected various experiences through travel. When I opened Hansik Goo in Hong Kong, I was hoping that I would be able to experience a lot of Hong Kong’s gastronomic culture, but I am sad that I cannot do that.

These days, while we can’t travel, I go to eat a lot of traditional Korean food, and I am getting inspired by reading Korean traditional food books and other chefs’ books.

Was it a tough decision to open Hansik Goo with such a turbulent time not only worldwide but also with everything that is going on in Hong Kong?

The first city to challenge as a native Korean chef running a restaurant in Korea is Hong Kong. Hong Kong is open to food and respects cultural diversity. It is one of the best gourmet cities in the world beyond Asia. Also, we had a great partner ZS at HK.

Image: Choi Joon Ho

How would you compare a dining experience at Mingles versus Hansik Goo?

Mingles wanted to bring a new dining experience to both foreigners and Koreans so we hope that the restaurants that Mingles will introduce while challenging overseas will be a little bolder. Hansik Goo wants to be a restaurant that introduces authentic Korean food that you can meet in Korea to overseas but under the exclusive style and method of Hansik Goo.

As Korean food’s popularity continues to grow, are there any standards in terms of authenticity you think that chefs should adhere to? Or is fusion the way to go?

The more places where Korean food is presented in a variety of ways, the better. This is because it is still important to extend the scene itself in Korean food. Personally, however, even if a new form of Korean food is presented, it seems that the base requires understanding and respect for traditional Korean food.

Mingles is called an Innovative Korean and Contemporary Korean, but we tried hard to keep a link to tradition. I think it is Hansik Goo that made such attempts more clearly.

Image: Choi Joon Ho

You’ve been cooking in kitchens around the world for years now and are well-versed in cooking a variety of cuisines — which would you say is your favorite?

Of course, Korean food is my favorite. But I don’t just like specific cuisine. Honestly, when you ask which cuisine is good, it is difficult to answer right away. This is because each country has different favorite points. I like Cantonese food (China, Hong Kong), and I think Japanese, Spanish, Italian, French, and Nordic all have their own charms.

What’s something that goes on behind the scenes in the kitchen that diners might not know about?

The moment we make food in the kitchen is only 2-3 hours, for service. I want you to know that there are kitchen teams working 13-14 hours a day for that moment. Not only cooking time, but organizing ingredients, organizing things, and washing dishes, and there are actually more subtasks than people can imagine.

In particular, fine dining is even more so because every sauce is house-made. We hope you remember the fact that countless chefs worked for the food you tasted.

Image: Finn Partners Box Asia

What advice would you offer young Korean chefs looking to make it overseas?

If you go abroad, you have no choice but to have an identity of Korean anyway. Therefore, if you can express your Korean identity when an opportunity arises overseas, there will be even better results. To do this, you need to have knowledge and understanding of Korean food, and you need to pay attention to the meal you eat every day and home cook.

Thanks again for taking the time to talk to us and our readers. One last question — Where does a Michelin star chef go out to eat? How much would you say you eat at home versus going out to eat?

I go to close colleagues’ restaurants to eat and learn a lot. In fact, I don’t eat any special food, and I really like kimbap, so I eat it a lot.

Jeff Liebsch
Jeff Liebsch has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Eurobasket, Tribal Football and Yonhap News. He can be followed on Twitter at @chevybusan.

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