Cooking In Korea With Chef Ciaran Hickey
It’s been a while since we chatted with one of our first featured chefs and good friend to GlobalChefs Ciaran Hickey. And while the time has passed, he has not stood still.
This month Hickey brings us up to speed with his moves and talks about cooking in Korea.
Last time we spoke, you were the Exec Chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Istanbul and prior to that you had called NYC, Nevis and London home. Where have you and your chef knives been hanging out since then?
The opening of the Four Seasons Bahamas was the next step, busy resort with two great restaurants. A two year stint back home in Ireland followed at the Radisson St Helens Hotel in Dublin, about as different in food style and atmosphere as you could get from The Bahamas. Finally since 2007, the amazing W Hotel, Seoul has been my home. Our two signature, Tony Chi designed restaurants, are “kitchen”, global influenced all day dining and “namu’, contemporary Japanese.
Professionally, what has been the standout experience for you in Korea?
Actually a few things, firstly the talent in our kitchens here is amazing. Considering that a lot of the food we do here is not their own, the standards are fantastic.
Secondly the work ethic is something else; people take ownership of their responsibilities from the lowest positions in the kitchen How has your time in Korea shaped your food?
Naturally a huge amount of influence has crept in from local ingredients and techniques but the greatest boost has been having the time, talent and resources available to me to experiment, create and develop our food. We are proud of the standards we have been able to achieve here, both of our restaurants won awards last year. In namu we of course stay inside the boundaries of Japanese cuisine but in kitchen, we have a free hand to go in whatever direction we choose.
How about your management style, how has that been effected?
Korea has been a very different experience for me. The way information and situations are managed here is very different. I am much more distanced from the day to day operation that anywhere else and essentially manage a team of 7 direct reports who in turn manage the 60 cooks below them. I’ve had to develop strong communication skills to give clear directions; being kept informed and aware without micromanaging is they key here I believe.
Korean food is pretty low on the "Asian Culinary scene radar", can you summarize it?
The Government here is aware of that and has been running a very active campaign for the past 3 years to help Globalize Korean food and make it more known in the mainstream. Korean food is like the hidden gem of Asia for me, it’s of unique flavors. It is a diverse and complex cuisine that shares a lot of common flavors with China and Japan having been influenced by these two neighbors for centuries. Korean food can be spicy but the other main flavor bases are also popular, sesame oil, soy and miso paste. The food is sorted into a lot of different categories, Rice dishes, noodle dishes, stews, soups and grilled or barbequed meats. In a Korean meal, the main dish will always be served with a lot of side dishes and generally kimchi which is eaten with almost all meals here.
Is the street food scene as vibrant as it is in many of Korea's neighboring countries?
Walking the streets of Seoul it’s almost impossible to believe that any Korean family cooks at home. The sheer number of restaurants and street food vendors is phenomenal. It is quite easy to have all you meals on the street if you were so inclined. The variety is huge but the most popular items being odeng, skewered fish paste simmered in a broth, tteokbokki, rice cakes cooked in spicy red pepper sauce and kimbab, the Korean take on California rolls.
Speaking of neighbors, there has been much recent press and concerns for the region. How has that been and what advice would you offer to a chef in a potential hot-spot?
It had little direct bearing on the day to running of the business and our personal lives, the only effects we saw was a slowing of business from the US and Europe for a while , travelers were nervous but its business as usual now. Between political tensions and natural disasters it seems this part of Asia is volatile just now so we make sure we are registered with our Embassy and keep close a relationship with them for updates and advice.
What is the thing you have most enjoyed about your new home?
Seoul is exciting, always going and always something to do. We have always enjoyed travelling and getting to Know the city has been fun. The seasons are very distinct here, hot summers and freezing winters so we make the most of them with the kids. It’s been great to add another culture to our “repertoire” so to speak.
What words of advice would you offer to a chef that wanted to cook in Korea?
Come with an open mind, you will have to un-learn a lot of things and learn to look at things differently. Be prepared to taste a lot of cool stuff and have some incredible experiences. Finally be aware that Koreans can drink the Irish under the table So be warned….