The Making of the Self-Made Man
Kwon is the proverbial self-made man. Raised in the seaside town of Gangneung in the mountainous province of Gangwon-do, he graduated from a two-year college before jumpstarting his culinary career at the Ritz Carlton Seoul. Five years later, he transferred to Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay in San Francisco. Despite his experience in Seoul, the cultural differences between the two continents posed a challenge for the budding global chef. “At that time, my English was really, really poor. It was like a 70-year-old Korean grandfather’s—‘You, go, go. Let go, go,’” Kwon kids. All jokes aside, his inability to communicate with other cooks led to bigger problems in the kitchen. “Lots of people, especially the chefs working under me, did not respect me, because I didn’t know anything,” he says, “I was always saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ I was becoming a ‘Yes-man.’”
But, with all challenges, there comes an opportunity for self-improvement. After a daunting experience at Safeway, Kwon realized that he didn’t really know much about food. “I had thought an apple was just an apple: green or red. But there are lots of kinds of apples, lots of names of apples. And then I moved to the cheese section, and I was like, ‘Holy crap.’” But he didn’t let Safeway’s wide selection, or his rudimentary English get the best of his career. Instead, he replaced his cultural incompetency with determination. Using the tried and true Korean method of work, work, work, he proved himself as a formidable and preserving chef. “Everyday I worked 10 to 12 hours for free. So I’m working 18 to 20 hours.” Even after the labor cuts due to 9/11, Kwon kept working overtime, saying, “it was the only way I could overcome my situation.”
Too big, too small, just right
At the age of 32, Kwon moved back to Korea to assume the position of sous-chef at W Hotel in Seoul. His youth and his inexperience with Korean office politics caused headaches and earned him a reputation—at least according to him—as a hot-tempered troublemaker.
He ventured overseas once again, this time to Sheraton Grande Tianjin in China. “I had a beautiful life…I lived like a king,” Kwon reminiscences. However, he wanted more than a luxurious life. “The only problem is there was no motivation…I thought to myself that China was not really a good place for me to improve.”
He found the experience that fit him just right in Dubai. In 2006, Dubai was at the peak of its hype as the place to be, so Kwon naturally became interested. “It’s very nice, there’s no taxes, the nightlife isn’t so good, but I don’t drink. I could live perfectly there.” With connections already urging him to come by, Kwon began working at the Fairmont Hotel, and then took the head chef position at the renowned Burj Al Arab, the world’s only “seven-star” hotel. As head chef, Kwon was responsible for running the hotel restaurant’s day-to-day operations, while the executive chef concentrated on promotional efforts.
What’s a “seven-star” hotel like? Kwon explains that in contrast to a five-star hotel, where you have around 500 rooms and 700 employees, the Burj has a ratio of 202 suites to 2,200 employees. “That means one guest has 10 employees to assist him. So basically, you become like a king.” Become a king for several thousand dollars a night? Not bad. Also, all rooms are duplex suites, and Hermes produces exclusive perfumes for the rooms. Did we mention you’re personally chauffeured from the airport to the hotel in a Rolls Royce Phantom?
Returning in style
In 2009, Kwon surprised many by giving up his position at the Burj to return to Seoul. In Korea, he rose to celebrity chef status, earning a reputation as the Korean “Gordon Ramsey,” for his perfectionism and kitchen temperament. Kwon also stars in Korea’s popular cooking reality show, “Yes Chef,” where 12 young chefs compete to be the next “Edward Kwon,” similar to Ramsey’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” And furthering the uncanny similarities between them, he’s usually seen yelling and shouting at the aspiring contestants. When asked if that’s his true nature in the kitchen, he smiles and responds, “Yes, sometimes to the guests as well. If somebody asks something stupid, I say this guy doesn’t belong in my restaurant. He should go to KFC to have dinner.” Ouch. But, you have to admire his honesty. More than that, though, Kwon reasons that it’s about safety. “We’re using a lot of dangerous stuff. Knives, forks, everything can be a weapon. So you need to be very straightforward, or else you don’t know what will happen…And because you’re the boss, you need to make sure you give them the right direction.” Yet he concedes that he’s not “shouting all the time” and guesses that 80 to 90% of American chefs yell more than him.
The Road Forward
Kwon has opened three restaurants in Korea: Eddie’s Café in 2009, The Spice (no longer under Kwon’s management) in Hannam-dong in 2010 and Lab XXIV in Cheongdam-dong in 2011, and plans to begin a fourth one called Edward Kwon. Despite the progress he has already made, Kwon believes that flaws still exist in Koreans and their relationship with food. One of his biggest frustrations towards Korean food culture is the disproportion between price and value. “I don’t want to pay 15,000 won for rice noodles. I know how much you bought it for. I know how much bean sprouts are, so how could it be 15,000 won?” In order to address this, he will open another restaurant called “The Mixed One” to offer fine dining to a broader audience. “We’ve set a maximum of 35,000 won, so there is a lot of value there.”
During his time in Korea, Kwon also works to globalize Korean cuisine. He has found that Koreans insult their own heritage by expecting a lower price for Korean food while coughing up unreasonable money for Western food. “If you go to a restaurant, will you spend 15,000—20,000 won for kimchi jjigae?” He asks. “I don’t think so. But if you go to a spaghetti restaurant, will you spend 15,000—20,000 won? People never say anything.” The problem is that Koreans associate Western food, French and Italian, as luxurious and reason that its price is reflective of its quality. On the other hand, Korean food isn’t luxurious—it’s familiar, and therefore they refuse to pay its worth. “Koreans ourselves do not respect our food, so how can you expect it to be globalized?”
He also wants to change the presentation of Korean food to the international community. He believes that there is a disconnect between what is shown abroad and consumed at home. “When I talk to Korean traditional chefs, I ask them what they are teaching Americans. Do you know gujeolpan? Sinseollo? My mom never made those dishes at home.” While Americans are learning about obscure Korean foods, the ultimate Korean dish, kimchi, is still not universally recognized. “The only people who know kimchi are people who are interested in Korea, have traveled to Korea, or live in an area with a Koreatown. Otherwise, if you go to somewhere like Switzerland, in the mountains, they have no idea what the hell kimchi is.”
He is also keen to expand educational opportunities. “Every year, 30,000 kids graduate from culinary school… I get a lot of emails from kids who want to be chefs, but they don’t have any money.” He explains that to practice culinary skills, you need to buy ingredients, with money that parents usually cannot provide. In two years, he plans to build a free culinary school with a full dormitory system. After three years, students will be qualified chefs, and therefore will not have to attend university. He says the school will welcome all nationalities to promote globalized chefs.
For more information about Edward Kwon’ s Lab XXIV, see this issue’s ‘Dining Out’ section, p62.
Now on its second season, Edward Kwon’s reality TV program “Yes Chef” can be seen everyday Saturday at midnight on cable TV station QTV.