“From a young age, I let nature lead the way,” says chef Yim Gi-Ho, whose healing approach to cooking was formed when he worked as a kitchen apprentice in Buddhist temples.
We all have those moments that change the course of our lives. Some are big, like meeting the love of your life. Others are small, like finding 20 bucks on the sidewalk. For Johnny Clark, that moment came in 2008 when he was working in New York City and a friend told him about Yim Gi-Ho. Call him the spiritual guru of Korean cuisine. At the time, Gi-Ho had graced the cover of Food Arts Magazine for being a forefather of the foraging movement—he's been picking milkweed since long before the chef at your local burlap-covered hipsteria was even born—as well as his holistic approach to cooking. Clark felt compelled to reach out to Gi-Ho and request a stage at Sandang, a restaurant in the mountains outside of Seoul. Gi-Ho reluctantly agreed, despite the fact that he rarely brought on apprentices and didn't even know what a stage was. Call it fate or destiny or just a happy accident, but the summer Clark spent with Gi-Ho put him on a path to return to Chicago, meet his current wife Beverly Kim, and open their restaurant, Parachute.
Nearly a decade later, Clark and Kim showed their gratitude by welcoming Gi-Ho to cook in the restaurant that he helped inspire. "Chef Yim Gi-Ho's interpretation of Korean food is not traditional Korean," Kim explains. "What makes him very different is his food is driven by healing. I think that's one element that a lot of chefs don't really think about. They think about the newest technique or trend—a lot of ego goes into the cooking and there's very little thinking about how someone would feel physically after having your food. I think that healing aspect of food is one element that is very important to chef Yim Gi-Ho and that we brought into our food as well."
Sounds like a lot of hippie talk, right? It kind of is. A meal by chef Gi-Ho requires a certain level of surrender to the touchy-feely. On a rainy January night in Chicago, guests walk into a dining room covered in paintings created the day before by Gi-Ho himself. This is a ritual he practices at his home restaurant, except he does so during the meal, often drawing guests' auras as they eat, modifying their menu accordingly and then giving them the drawing as a gift. Painted trees, abstract masses of pink and purple dots, and geometric forms represent each party at the dinner. They set a somewhat quirky tone for the meal that begins with chat juk, or pine nut porridge.
"Korean food is not meant to blow your mind, but at the end of the meal you should feel complete. It's a different way of thinking. It's very humble. It's more about what food is meant to do—it's meant to nourish you," Kim says. The first course demonstrates just that with its nutty flavor and silken texture. It's served with the sentiment that the dish is meant to warm up the palate and stomach. Paired with a freeze-dried corn tea, the duo does just that in a subtle yet comforting way, like an edible Snuggie. The following courses each progressively intensify in flavor—a trio of hwe muchim (raw halibut) flavored with sesame or lime and ginger, then a trio of jun (egg pancakes) enveloping beef shank and hake.
By contrast, the next courses are a slap in the face, in a masochistically delicious way: sweet kalbi beef with housemade noodles, pumpkin "steak" over crispy rice noodles and, of course, three different versions of fermented foods—white kimchi, pickled radish, and potato wrapped in rice—with all the funkiness one expects from Korean cooking. Gi-Ho is considered one of the best chefs in Korea because he can both elevate simple ingredients such as pumpkin with a few drops of fruit sauce, or deliver the classics in a way that pays tribute to the generations of Korean cooks that Gi-Ho learned from.
"From a young age, I let nature lead the way," Gi-Ho says via a translator. Gi-Ho's interest in food, as well as ancient herbal medicine, began at home, from which he ran away at the age of six. He has no formal culinary training, but instead learned as a kitchen apprentice in Buddhist temples, working alongside village elders throughout South Korea. The rest of his training came from foraging, farming, and fermenting (his current restaurant boasts an eel farm). There are no recipes, no cookbooks—just the ingredients in their purest form and Gi-Ho's imagination. It might seem foreign, but according to Gi-Ho, his spiritual style is deeply rooted in Korea and has merely been overshadowed by modernist techniques.
Three hours of tea pairings and rice cakes later, guest walk away from the meal feeling satisfied, not only in terms of appetite, but also in some sort of kalbi–induced meditative state. One of the purposes of Gi-Ho's visit was to spread his philosophy globally, and encourage more chefs to break away from their recipes and embrace the beauty of spontaneous cooking. Maybe there is something to all this mystic cooking method after all.