How a female Buddhist monk became one of Asia’s most revered chefs

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(CNN) – Saturday morning is busy for Jeong Kwan, a South Korean Buddhist monk.

After her early morning meditation To practice and have breakfast, she goes to her garden inside Bekiangsa, a temple in the picturesque Naijangsan National Park, south of Seoul.

The air is filled with the fragrance of blooming coriander flowers. A wild deer squawks on the leaves in the garden.

Eggplant and green pepper are growing. The cabbage she planted in winter is plump and ready for harvest.

“It’s beautiful because it has a lot of energy – it’s grown in cold winters,” the monk told CNN Travel by translator, separating his palms to indicate the size of this year’s cauliflower.

Accidental star chef

Jeong Kwan devoted himself to Buddhism when he was 17 years old.

Jeong Kwan devoted himself to Buddhism when he was 17 years old.

Courtesy Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

Jeong Kwan – his Buddhist name – is not your average monk. Her temple cooking is endorsed by Le Bernardin’s famous chef Eric Ripert in 2015 New York Times profile Written by food journalist Jeff Gordinier. An entire episode of the popular Netflix series, “Chef’s Table,” was dedicated to her.
Most recently, she was a recipient Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Icon Award In 2022. Voted by more than 300 members of the Academy of Awards, it celebrates culinary individuals who have positively influenced and inspired others.

Yet his world has changed little.

“I am very honored to receive the Icon Award … As you already know, I am a monk, not a trained chef. It is wonderful to hear that people from all over the world are interested in Korean cuisine,” says Jeong Kwan.

“Even with such praise, I need to be humble and not let pride come into my heart. How I greet everyone I meet is true sincerity.”

The chef devoted himself to Buddhism in 1974, although he says he still feels like a teenager at heart – even as he grows older and his spirituality increases.

Unlike many people, she already had a sense of life that she wanted to live at a young age. She was in elementary school when she told her father that when she grew up, she would be alone with nature.

His mother died when Jeong Kwan was 17 years old.

“I was sad and 50 days later I went to a temple. There, I met other monks who became my new family. I got knowledge and pleasure in following Buddhism. Then I decided that this is where I will spend the rest of my life. I want to study Buddhism, “she says.

After three years of her practice, she moved to her current home, Bekyangsa.

“The road to the temple was very mild – not rugged or sloping. I felt very calm and peaceful. It was like getting back into my mother’s arms,” ​​said Jeong Kwan. Recalls her first walk in Baikangsa.

That was 45 years ago.

What is the temple meal?

All of Jeong Kwan's dishes are vegan.

All of Jeong Kwan’s dishes are vegan.

Courtesy Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

In 2013, Jeong Kwan decided to open the doors of the temple to visitors so that he could connect with people who wanted to learn about Buddhism – especially through his meals.

“Temple food is a combination that brings together physical and mental energy. It’s about getting maximum flavor and nutrition from plant-based ingredients with limited spices or added spices,” she says.

“Temple meals are a part of my Buddhist practice and a journey of self-discovery. People who cook and eat temple meals are all on a journey to find out who I am. I think Korean temple meals are one of the people. And will continue to play a role. “

All of Jeong Kwan’s dishes are vegan and are made without garlic, onions, scallions, chives or leeks. (It is believed that the five spicy ingredients will disturb the peace of mind by stimulating anger and passion.)

Made with her food The freshest organic ingredients as well as fermented sauces and dishes like bean paste and kimchi – all these are grown or made in the temple.

There’s no set menu – it works with whatever product is fresh that day so the recipes vary widely.

Jeong Kwan believes that food can help us regain moisture by lowering our body temperature or lowering our body temperature. An example is Doenjang – Korean fermented bean paste – which the monk frequently uses to balance his diet. But making Doenjang is a long process.

She and the other inhabitants of the temple start by boiling and mashing soybeans in November. It is then molded into a table – soybean bricks – for drying and storage. In April, salted water is added to the table. In the month of May, the monks at the temple separate the salted water – which at this stage is soy sauce – from the bean paste.

“If you come to visit, you will see that part of the temple where we store all the traditional ingredients – paste and sauce – in utensils. I have labeled them all so that they are very tidy. It is a very beautiful place. . ” Jeong Kwan says her eyes are shining as she talks about her diet.

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“This year’s bean paste is very tasty because the weather is perfect. It is very sunny during the day and still very cold in the evening.”

She has jars of soy sauce, bean paste and pickled radishes that have been boiled in jars for more than two decades. These are her most invaluable creations in the temple.

“If I have to go to another temple one day, I’ll bring them,” Jeong Kwan jokes.

“It’s a work of nature. It’s magical how by giving yeast, you change the energy of the original ingredient. Pickled radishes no longer have the energy of radishes but they contain the energy of fermented sauces and then it harmonizes our bodies.”

Human connection through Buddhism and food

"For me, food is very important.  It can bring such a strong bond between people," Says Jeong Kwan.

“For me, food is very important. It can bring such a strong bond between people,” says Jeong Kwan.

Courtesy Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

Jeong Kwan realized that she had been fond of eating since childhood, when she saw her mother cooking.

In 1994, she decided to dedicate herself entirely to temple cooking.

“For me, food is very important. It can bring such a strong bond between people,” says Jeong Kwan.

One of her favorite memories is a visit to her father’s temple.

“Why do you want to live here – you can’t even eat meat here?” She remembers asking him.

“I made a mushroom dish for him and after he tasted it, he said, ‘I’ve never tasted anything so delicious. If you can eat something so delicious here, I won’t worry about you. I’m happy for it. You’re in the temple.’ Just stay. ”

But not all of her best food-related memories are made in her own kitchen. Jeong Kwon has been able to enjoy some wonderful meals while traveling abroad.

At one time in the Paris restaurant Allen Passard, a famous French chef of the same name cooked a vegan meal for him.

The monk says, “When I was eating, I felt like this was my food. There was no obstruction in the food. It was very comforting and I felt very at home,” says the monk.

He also holds a special place in his heart for the Le Bernardine Report.

“Chef Eric was one of the people who really freed me from my food. He helped break down people’s thoughts about temple meals or vegan food. He really helped me get out of my shell,” says the monk.

Jeong Kwan adds that being free does not mean “do what you want”.

“He is not caged by repentance and guilt because you do not follow the practices you believe in. So following all the virtues of my practice really relieves me,” she says.

A prime example of this is the understanding of the natural life cycle as well as adherence to Buddhist virtues and teachings.

‘Cooking is not going to be fancy’

Jeong Kwan hopes he can use his new influence to encourage others to become more environmentally conscious.

Jeong Kwan hopes he can use his new influence to encourage others to become more environmentally conscious.

Courtesy Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

Jeong Kwan feels that his philosophy is particularly important in today’s world, which is full of challenges such as epidemics, international conflicts and climate change.

“We had epidemics and epidemics before. I believe all this is related to our actions against nature,” says the monk.

She believes that society should focus on three important things: to cope with climate change, to be more environmentally friendly and to respect all life.

“[By doing all three,] It will help us get back on track, “said Jeong Kwan.

Eating and cooking will enable us to “do whatever we want spiritually and physically” even in adverse times.

She hopes that she will be able to use her newfound influence to spread these important messages around the world.

“For me, cooking is not about being fancy or showing off difficult skills, but about being one with the ingredients. When I cook, I think of the ingredients as if they were a part of me. I use water and fire to cook vegetables. At times, I think we have become one.

“The heart and soul put into food will be received by those who eat it and create a positive and lasting cycle,” says Jeong Kwan.

Her purpose? Others adopt a lifestyle that respects and honors nature and our environment, promotes sustainable lifestyles and sees a positive impact on climate change and saving lives.

“To do this, I need to change. Small actions start from me and I hope I can share this with more people around the world, including the wonderful chefs from Asia’s 50 best communities,” says Jeong Kwan.

Baikyangsa There is a temple inside Nijangsun National Park, about 3 hours bus ride from Seoul. There is an entry fee of KW3,000 (or $ 2.5) for day visitors. You can also connect to one of them Temple investment programsIncluding Temple Food Experience Program Featuring a cooking class with Jeong Kwan.
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