By Lee Min-young, Cho Hae-min
Upscale fine-dining restaurants have been predominantly focused on European, molecular styles of cooking.
However, there are Korean restaurants that serve Korean haute cuisine, elevating the dishes several steps above by presenting the elegance of traditional Korean cuisine using modern touches.
One of those pioneers is Michelin one-starred Korean fine-dining restaurant BICENA, on the 81st level of the Lotte World Tower Signiel Hotel Seoul, the tallest skyscraper in the country.
The food experience comes with a spectacular view from the top of the building, offering a panorama of Seoul's downtown skyline.
And, of course, the quality of the food itself does the rest of the talking.
"BICENA" stands for three Korean verbs that mean to "empty, fulfill and then share," said Lucia Cho, 37, president of Gaon Society, which operates BICENA and the Michelin three-starred Gaon, during an interview with The Korea Times.
Gaon Society initially started with the Korean traditional ceramic tableware brand KwangJuYo, run by her father Cho Tae-kwon. She later expanded the business into the restaurant scene, ending up with two of the nation's leading Korean fine-dining establishments ― Gaon and BICENA ― with four Michelin stars under her belt.
Cho said she had a rough start, facing many challenges, because she was one of the pioneers of creating upscale restaurants for Korean food.
"When I first started thinking of opening a Korean restaurant in 2011, there was no such thing as Korean fine-dining restaurants," she said. "It was either babjip (local eateries that serve quick Korean meals) or shikdang (small Korean diners). So when I told people that I wanted to open a Korean restaurant, they would say, 'what do you mean by restaurant?'"
Cho said looking back, she had to make people understand that Korean dishes could also be consumed with class.
She said it took years to get people to come to her restaurant and pay high prices for her dishes. But Cho said she has faith in her food and takes very seriously the engagement and interaction between the owner and the chefs.
"I very much focus on creating an atmosphere where chefs can grow," she said. "The factor that makes BICENA stand out is I think our chefs' talent, their focus and the sincerity that they add to their dishes. When working with me, there has to be a mutual trust. I give them my trust and support but oftentimes I can be really harsh on them."
While working closely with the chefs, she makes sure they take on a great sense of responsibility in what they serve, encouraging them to reflect on their own philosophy in the dishes they create.
"I say we represent our country," Cho said. "We should not take that responsibility lightly. We try to be our best every day."
Gaon's executive chef Kim Byoung-jin and BICENA's executive chef Jun Gwang-sik are now Cho's most trusted partners who hold the same vision as her.
In February, Jun served President Moon Jae-in and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a formal dinner at BICENA.
"It was a valuable experience for me," Jun said, looking back at the event with great pride.
Jun remembered that Modi was a vegetarian and loved the dishes Jun served. The menu included ongsimi, Korean-style matzo balls in warm soup, stuffed with pine nuts and stir-fried vegetables, and japchae with burdock.
Ongsimi with pine nuts filled with red bean paste and anchovy-based soup with noodles made of fish and squid are among BICENA's signature dishes.
The presentation is stunning, exquisitely placed on KwangJuYo's Korean traditional ceramics, and healthy and abundant in taste.
"The utmost priority should always be placed on the ingredients," Jun said. "BICENA uses fresh seafood … and those fresh ingredients undergo various fermentation processes to create an essential flavor that adds depth to the taste."
He said he considers the overall process of creating a dish very important. "I call it 'sincerity,'" he said. "When people can taste the process and our efforts, I think that is something that will make them come back."
Kim Byoung-jin, who is executive chef of "Gaon," is also a man of strong endeavors.
Kim, who worked for more than three years at BICENA ― from when it opened in 2012 ― has been with Gaon Society for 17 years. For nearly two decades, he has been constantly studying Korean traditional cuisine and trying to find ways to give them modern flair.
"As the trend is made and led by the brand itself, studying our own traditional cuisine will surely be a milestone for creating new menus," Kim said.
But, above all, he said the creation of new dishes simply begins with a love for Korean food.
Kim said the Korean dishes he wants to introduce to others are always those he loves, meaning a love for Korean food should come first.
"Constantly thinking about the food you love and trying to reflect it in your own dishes are the factors that determine the depth of the flavor and the degree of completion," he said.
Eyes lit bright with passion, Kim said BICENA's and Gaon's Michelin stars pushed him to aim higher.
"Many people say Korean dishes are already enjoying global popularity but I think there is much more room for hansik (traditional Korean food) to develop and evolve," he said. "Rather than limiting our sphere of expertise to fine dining, my goal is to diversify ways to showcase hansik to a larger group of people."
Cho also has plans to expand in the global culinary market.
She said Korean dishes have great potential but it is also very limiting for her company to run Korean fine-dining restaurants in a single country, especially the size of Korea.
"Korea is a dynamic country, with the world increasingly taking much interest in our culture as well as food," Cho said. "But I want to bring our food to a much larger audience."
As she has spent most of her life abroad, Cho knows that there is a huge demand for Korean food outside Korea.
"Many Koreans live in the U.S, so hopefully I would like to present our dishes in the U.S. market in the near future."
She dreams of creating a brand that is friendlier, more casual and accessible. "I want to create a brand that can be part of someone's life."