Edward Kwon: “I want to work to globalize Korean food.”
Seo Il-ho

Staff Reporter
The Weekly Chosun

Edward Kwon is a Korean who has taken up the head chef position at Burj Al Arab Hotel, a symbol of Dubai's amazing growth. I met the 38-year-old man, whose Korean name is Kwon Young-min, on December 9 and 10 at Burj Al Arab and the nearby Jumeirah Beach Residence. The young chef's success story is depicted in detail in his recently published autobiographical book, "Cooking Seven Stars," which is gaining popularity among Korean readers.
"The highest-ranked chef at Burj Al Arab is Executive Chef Luigi Gerosa and he is my immediate boss. There are three sous chefs under me. The total number of people working in the kitchen is 420, including 260 chefs. The staff consists of people from 30 different countries, including around 20 Koreans. I was the first Korean to come here and brought them in one by one," Kwon said.
At this proud landmark of Dubai, which is called a "seven-star hotel," there are six restaurants, including the Asian buffet restaurant Junsui. "Here, everything boasts the highest standard. In the past, the hotel charged an admission fee (US$50) to those who simply wanted to have a tour. Now only those customers who have booked a restaurant are allowed to enter the hotel. Actually, there is no official grade like “seven star.” Because the luxury level Burj Al Arab offers is remarkably higher than other five-star hotels, people came to call it a 'seven star,' which is like an idiom," Kwon said.
George H. Bush, Madonna, Tiger Woods – Kwon’s Celebrity Fans   
Kwon graduated from the Department of Hotel Culinary Art at Gangneung Yeongdong College. Before landing a job at Burj Al Arab, he worked at various hotels, including the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Seoul, Ritz Carlton in San Francisco, Sheraton Grand Hotel in Tianjin, China, and Fairmont Dubai Hotel. "Much as sports management agencies manage professional athletes’ careers, there are specialized agencies supervising the careers of chefs. In return for introducing a chef, the agency receives a sum amounting to 17 to 25 percent of the chef’s annual salary," Kwon said.
A native of Gangneung in Gangwon Province, Kwon first came into contact with cooking when he, as a teenage boy, was working as a kitchen helper at a restaurant in Seoul. "Due to my grandmother's harsh opposition, I had to give up enrolling at a Christian seminary. While wandering aimlessly for a while, I ran away from home and left for Seoul to prepare for the college entrance exam again. But I had no money, so I started to work at a restaurant kitchen to earn my living," Kwon recalled. "At the time, my seniors at the kitchen would comment I was 'not half bad' at cooking. Looking back, they were just praising me for understanding their instructions and doing things quickly. But I assumed I had some talent for cooking. So, I just naturally decided to go to a technical college and didn’t hesitate to pick up culinary art as my major."
Upon graduating from college in 1995, he was lucky enough to find a job at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Seoul. However, in 2001, he left for the United States with a dream of becoming a “global chef” and was assigned to Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay in San Francisco. As expected, his life in the United States proved to be an uphill battle. The toughest part was the difference in ingredients, which resulted in a gap in cooking skills and ideas. To overcome this handicap, he started to frequent supermarkets.
"I bought hundreds of different kinds of cheese, a small amount of each, every day and tasted them with baguettes,” Kwon said. “It was a kind of 'raw food diet training.' Many people think that the tongue is the primary organ feeling tastes, but the eventual control tower of every sense is brain. For example, the man who was named the top chef in the United States in 2008 had been diagnosed with advanced tongue cancer and had three-quarters of his tongue cut out.” 
While he was working in the United States, Kwon showed up for work before sunrise and punched out late in the evening. "For two years, I worked for 20 hours everyday from 5 a.m. in the morning until 1 a.m. the next day without a single day off,” he said. “My American colleagues hated me very much, arguing that I was creating an atmosphere unfavorable to other employees. Then, I would say, 'I know less than one-tenth of what you American guys do. If I don’t work much harder, I can’t survive here.'"
After years of hard work, Kwon was ranked among the "Top Ten Young Chefs" selected by the American Culinary Federation in 2003. In April 2006, he moved to Fairmont Dubai Hotel. He met several world-famous celebrities during his stints in the United States and Dubai. He said, "When a VIP comes in, we serve the dishes first and then go to their table to exchange greetings. I have met celebrities such as George Clooney, Sharon Stone, Pierce Brosnon, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods and Maria Sharapova, to name just a few. The list of heads of state is confidential. Barbara Streisand once offered me a personal chef position and Madonna told me, 'This food is better than sex.' I can also vividly remember when former U.S. President George H. Bush stepped into my kitchen and offered me a handshake, saying 'I really enjoyed the food.'"
As the head chef at Burj Al Arab, Kwon still tries to cook himself sometimes, if not as often as before. He said, "The dishes that I make cost 3 million to 4 million won (US$ 2,200 to 2,900) for a meal. That's because I have to set aside two or three days from my regular work schedule to prepare a full course meal. When I invite guests to my house, I prepare dishes myself because they look forward to tasting what I make. After marrying me, my wife felt burdened when cooking for me. After hearing my complaints a couple of times, she retorted, 'You should cook for yourself.' I decided to eat whatever she gives me thereafter.”
Kwon said that getting rid of fear of speaking in English greatly helped him to become a “global chef.” He recalled, “I used to write down English expressions in Korean and memorize them all. Only when you get rid of fear and shyness about speaking in English can you truly speak English. Actually, I still don’t have a large vocabulary. But if you just learn a few useful words for communication and use them fearlessly, you would have no problem in everyday communication.”
Kwon attributed much of his success to mentors such as Jean-Paul Naquin, Xavier Mouche and Luigi Gerosa, all internationally renowned chefs. "In Western restaurants, it's not rare for an executive chef to empty dustbins or to sweep the floor. They never make their subordinates do odd chores but encourage them to concentrate more on cooking. Executive chefs who are setting a good example by deeds are respected, even though they never demonstrate authority. To put in a nutshell, this is 'servant leadership,’ I think,” he said.
Kwon said that Korean fashion designer Andre Kim is also his role model. Kim made him a chef’s outfit and encouraged him to take to the catwalk. He believes that like a fashion designer, a chef is also artist of a kind. "I think cooking is a synthetic art,” he said. “An ideal chef should be a synthetic artist who can put fashion, design, music, art and architecture together besides cooking. In this regard, a chef needs the sense of an interior artist. Food itself is important, but it is very important, too, in what environment, or mood, you eat.”
'Do I Cook at Home? No!'
Kwon said that he believes everybody can be a cook. "Whatever you cook for yourself or for others, everybody is a cook in a sense. In this regard, we can say cooking is the first and last profession in human history," he said.
One of Kwon’s goals is to globalize Korean food. "In order to globalize Korean food, we must make it fit the eye level of global citizens,” he said. “If they can’t enjoy Korean food, we have to change it to bring it closer to them. Also, if Korean food is to be loved globally, the first and foremost thing to do is distribute our ingredients around the world. How nice would it be if all the sushi restaurants in the world use Korean soy sauce instead of Japanese kikoman?”
Kwon also showed keen interest in training young cooks. To this end, he hopes to open a culinary school in Korea. Last August he was appointed a chair professor of Seoul Hyundai Junior College’s department of food service industry. He said, "My wish is to open a kibbutz-style school in Korea. It’s building a school in a farm so that students can get fresh ingredients anytime and learn the basics of cooking as well as applying recipes. My dream is to open a school where students can study for free. In order to do so, there must be a foundation and big money. It needs a lot of land and good facilities. So, I will do restaurant and food consulting businesses. I will frequently appear on Korean TV this year, so keep watching me.”
[January 4, 2009]