Jeong Kwan is a Buddhist nun living in Seoul who happens to also be revered for her cooking. She’s been praised by noted chefs like Eric Ripert of Le New York City’s Le Bernadin. Her vegan cuisine is unexpectedly “transcendent” due to the intimate relationship she has with the earth that has produced the ingredients. T explores her cooking in this article.
Jeong Kwan, photo credit T magazine
But even if you can talk about food for hours, there comes a point when you need to make contact with it.
I love going to farmers’ markets and farms to see and touch the food we eat. It’s easy to constantly dine at restaurants in this modern world and not know what eggplants or brussels sprouts look like “in the wild.”
Kwan believes that the ultimate cooking — the cooking that is best for our bodies and most delicious on our palates — comes from this intimate connection with fruits and vegetables, herbs and beans, mushrooms and grains. In her mind, there should be no distance between a cook and her ingredients. “That is how I make the best use of a cucumber,’’ she explains through a translator. “Cucumber becomes me. I become cucumber. Because I grow them personally, and I have poured in my energy.” She sees rain and sunshine, soil and seeds, as her brigade de cuisine. She sums it up with a statement that is as radically simple as it is endlessly complex: “Let nature take care of it.”
The current world we live in also allows us to indulge in constant instant gratification. We can’t help but develop an insatiable need for change, and new tools and technologies help us to experience things that were previously unattainable. Constant change is at our fingertips, and we can have it immediately. In an increasingly global and technologically-connected world, we can order any kind of food we want and have it arrive on our doorstep within the hour. We can engineer ingredients so that they are available almost anywhere, year round.
Kwan’s cooking, however, exemplifies the long game. Her secret weapons are the ingredients that have gained character and taste over almost unthinkable lengths of time. Her garden has no fence, and she uses what has grown there in harmony with any animals that may have had more need for the fruits of her labor. There is reward in slow motion, in letting something develop for years rather than days, in patience, in balance with the surrounding natural world.
‘‘That’s why it’s not pretty,’’ she says. If a wild boar makes off with a pumpkin, well, so be it — the garden has no fence around it, and it seems to blur into the surrounding forest in a way that suggests the playground remains open to beasts of all types.
In line with Hemingway’s thought that the “good unpublished poem” is necessary in the world, Kwan cooks far from the eye of the Michelin Guide or James Beard awards, and for very few. But “positive energy has a habit of finding its way out into the wider world.”
The paradox is that she [cooks] for such a limited audience. There are only two other nuns meditating alongside her at the Chunjinam hermitage. They cook together; sometimes Kwan cooks for the monks, or for visitors.
And this seems like the most Zen idea of all: that one of the world’s greatest chefs can often be found mapping out her meals in silence and solitude, plucking mint leaves in a garden that feels far, far away from anything resembling preening egos and gastronomic luxury. But she seems to know that positive energy has a habit of finding its way out into the wider world. One day, after we have toured the temple, she leads me down to a small bridge that crosses over a creek. We stand on the bridge and she touches her hand to her ear. She wants me to listen. So we listen: She and I simply stand there by the water for a couple of minutes, listening to the sound of the current. Then she smiles — it really is like a ray of light, this smile — and points to the creek and utters a single word in English, as she looks into my eyes.
‘‘Orchestra,’’ she says.