Is the "Philosopher Chef" — a Buddhist Nun in South Korea — the Next Food Celebrity?
If it were April 1, you'd think it was a parody — an article that will appear in the New York Times T Magazine on October 25 maintaining that "the most exquisite food in the world, say many celebrated chefs" is that prepared by a 59-year-old Buddhist nun named Jeong Kwan at the seventh-century Baekyangsa Temple, 169 miles south of Seoul. Among her specialties, we are told, are mushroom caps filled with diced tofu, kimchee "that has been buried in a hole in the ground for months," and pumpkin punch "studded with nibbles of rice" (how do you stud a punch?).
It is not a parody, though if you read the article, you'll find only one celebrated chef — Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in Manhattan, himself a Buddhist — praising Kwan's cooking; some other chefs, including Dan Barber and Michel Bras, are mentioned as being "in the same camp" as her, and we are told that, like Ripert, René Redzepi finds inspiration in Asian temple cuisine, but only Ripert speaks directly to Kwan's talents. Ripert and the author of the article, Jeff Gordiner, a regular contributor to the Times and numerous other publications.
Kwan doesn't have customers; she cooks only for a couple of other nuns and sometimes for monks at the adjacent monastery and for visitors — though Ripert did bring her to New York to prepare a meal at Le Bernardin early this year. She is self-taught. Yet, writes Gordiner, "Kwan's lunch left me humbled and exhilarated. Here were compositions on the plate that were so elegant they could've been slipped into a tasting menu at Benu or Blanca and no one would have batted an eyelash."
Her cooking is vegan, and lacking in garlic or onions (they are thought to inspire lust). There should be no distance between a cook and her ingredients, Kwan believes. "Cucumber becomes me," she tells Gordiner. "I become cucumber."