On paper, some of the Gourmet storylines seem rather trifling. Cow hunts, beef taste tests, chef competitions, butchery challenges… But for some reason, even though some of the plots sound not-quite dramatically interesting, the episodes still manage to be really watchable. For this reason, I wouldn’t say Gourmet is an excellent drama, but it’s still accomplished a worthy feat in appealing to a populist sensibility while maintaining high production value. (What could be more appealing and populist than rooting for the underdog?) For me, its strengths (the acting, the pacing) outweigh its weaknesses (story and plot). Gourmet‘s charm isn’t so much in WHAT it does as it is HOW it does it.
SONG OF THE DAY
Han Hee-jung – “산책” (A walk). This is from the new release and first solo album of Han Hee-jung, aka Dawny of disbanded indie duo Bluedawn and also one of the earlier vocalists for rock band The The (albums 3 and 4). The album is pretty fantastic; it showcases her trademark low-key — but also unexpectedly complex — melodicism. [ Download ]
EPISODE 11 RECAP
The rules of the Beef Battle: Round 1 eliminates 8 of 16 teams based on the quality of the cow itself. The top 8 teams go on to Round 2, where a butcher from each team must break down the entire cow in a challenge that tests speed and accuracy. And finally, the top 4 of those teams advance to Round 3, where chefs are tested on their ability to create char-grilled dishes.
Jin-soo is unexpectedly tapped to fill in as TV host when the scheduled MC gets into an accident; she and her boss stumble their way through the broadcast, but in an appealing enough way that wins viewer affection.
Round 1 fulfills what was foreshadowed at the end of the last episode, because Oonamjeong’s cow is graded the top quality specimen, but ultimately fails because some bruising/hemorrhaging is found in the muscle. The rough handling of their cow has caused excessive stress, which manifests in the beef itself. Team Daejin (Sung-chan’s team) had been in second place with its Grade A+ beef, and Oonamjeong’s had just barely topped it with Grade A++. However, this discovery means Oonamjeong is given penalty points, dropping them all the way down to 8th place — the very last place of teams that qualify to advance to the next round.
Bong-joo’s overconfidence takes a hit, and his anger over his team’s mistake is only exacerbated by seeing Sung-chan’s team in first place. He does congratulate Sung-chan for the win, but cynically scoffs at Sung-chan’s response, telling him that he no longer considers them brothers. He again promises to beat him, warning him that the battle is bound to grow ugly.
What’s cute about Jin-soo’s reporting is that she’s so obviously on Daejin’s side, trying to be objective but getting particularly excited whenever Daejin receives a good mark. In her excitement over the win, some of her growing affection for Sung-chan starts to show as well, and since she’s an open, straightforward type of character, she doesn’t bother trying to hide it. Unlike, for instance, Joo-hee, who’s all about veiled comments and hidden thoughts.
For instance, that night Joo-hee waits for Sung-chan outside his place, again disappointed to see Jin-soo arriving with him (they bicker over Jin-soo’s driving, as she’s knocked his sideview mirror askew by accident). After Jin-soo leaves, Joo-hee approaches and they talk in his apartment, which is mostly her trying to persuade him to return to Oonamjeong. Thinking she understands the whole picture, Joo-hee’s efforts aim to bring peace to the family. But Sung-chan tells her that Bong-joo doesn’t consider them brothers anymore, and adds, “Don’t think of me as family anymore either. It’ll be more comfortable for you.”
Jin-soo returns to Sung-chan’s truck to duct-tape the fallen mirror back into place, and also tapes a single red rose to the car, somewhat bashful at the gesture but giddy in anticipation. However, seeing Joo-hee leave the apartment, she wonders, “Was that what their relationship was like? Then what am I doing?” She snatches the rose and leaves, and treats Sung-chan with jealous irritation the next day.
Last of all, the butchers prepare for their competition. Oonamjeong’s Choi Jong-gu pays a visit to Mr. Kang’s restaurant that night, and the reason for their enmity becomes clear. Choi thinks Mr. Kang stole a job from him in the past, while Kang contends that he earned the job fair and square. Choi blames Kang for his daughter’s misfortune, as the engagement was called off because of his job. The air is rife with tension, erupting when Choi suddenly overturns the table, knocking Mr. Kang to the ground — where he slices his hand on broken glass, as the teams ready to commence Round 2.
EPISODE 12 RECAP
Round 2 begins. Mr. Kang starts off strong in the butchery battle, showing both speed and skill. However, his hand begins to pain him and he flinches — leading him to accidentally stab his own leg. He continues on resolutely but loses steam, causing everyone to wonder why the frontrunner has suddenly slowed. Sung-chan looks over in concern and sees blood dripping all over the floor, and attempts to call a stop to the proceedings.
But Kang grimly keeps going, and despite finishing in last place, he earns everyone’s respect for continuing in the face of severe injury (he collapses after finishing, and is rushed to the hospital to get surgery). He may have lost in the speed battle, but the test of accuracy confirms his skill — all the other teams have points deducted for errors in their butchery, except for Team Daejin, who earns the only perfect score. It’s enough to put them in 4th place overall, earning them a berth into Round 3 (Oonamjeong goes into the last round in first place).
Chef Choi has the humanity to look at least a LITTLE guilty, since he was responsible for the injury, and Mr. Kang is too gracious to reveal why he slipped up and cut himself in the first place. Jin-soo discovers the truth when she grabs his hand and sees his wound, but again, he declines to explain why it happened.
Seok-dong takes more abuse from Min-woo and finally has had enough; he quits Oonamjeong and goes to Sung-chan. Jin-soo is excited to see him again, but Sung-chan scolds his former sous chef for being foolish enough to quit such a good job. He tells Seok-dong to get his job back, not wanting him to follow in his own footsteps and suffer for it.
Seok-dong protests, wanting to stay with Sung-chan, and he can’t understand how Sung-chan is so calm after after what happened in the successorship contest. He’s about to mention the cheating attempt when Sung-chan shushes him, but Jin-soo is quick enough to catch on, and wonders what he’s referring to. Seok-dong’s slip continues to bother her, and it’ll probably only be a matter of time before she unravels the truth.
The teams now have a little time to prepare for the last round. Oonamjeong orders charcoal from all around the country, while Bong-joo attempts to set himself apart from the rest of the pack by procuring a particular top-grade charcoal, called hyang-tan, which was so special it was reserved for the king. However, only the head chef of Oonamjeong knows the recipe, and Chef Oh had only intended to pass it along to his successor. Bong-joo pleads for his father to recognize him as the true successor, and even fortune-teller Ja-woon agrees. As a father, however, Chef Oh feels that if he were to give one son an advantage, the other deserves equal opportunity, and feels guilty for not being able to help Sung-chan.
Meanwhile, Sung-chan has taken Mr. Kang’s advice in seeking out a purveyor of charcoal, who turns out to be a drunken mess. The charcoal man tells him of a high-quality charcoal made of a particular type of wood found deep in the mountainside. So Sung-chan hikes his way into the woods to find it, forced to go alone because the alcoholic charcoal man is in no condition to help him.
Jin-soo appoints herself Sung-chan’s helper and goes to meet him, but a fall injures her ankle and gets her lost. Alone and scared, she calls Sung-chan for help. Unfortunately, it takes him hours to find her, by which time she’s near-hysterical with fear. When he finally finds her, she bursts into tears and clings to him (and his reaction to her hug hints at more than mere relief).
I have to be honest and admit that I can understand why some people may not respond well to Nam Sang-mi in this drama. Personally, I like her but that’s also because I first saw her in Bad Family, which was a wonderful drama and in which her character was boyish, no-nonsense, and adorable. She’s not as natural in Gourmet as she was there (anyone who loves quirky family comedies has to see Bad Family — although I’d suggest skimming past Episode 1), and from what I hear she wasn’t that natural in Time of Dog and Wolf, either. So this is probably one of those personal preference issues. If you like her, you’re probably okay with her character. If you don’t, you’ll probably find Jin-soo on the annoying side.
Even if I hadn’t been predisposed to like her, though, I would be willing to go with her because she’s Sung-chan’s love interest, and Sung-chan deserves some love. Their romance is starting to take some shape, and Kim Rae-won is natural where she is not, so at least his half of their interactions feels honest and endearing.
Still, she does have some nice moments, such as when she’s hosting the TV show and announces the butchery round scores. She announces each team’s penalty points, then has a moment when she realizes that Mr. Kang — who’s been rushed to the hospital — has earned none. Her voice quavers and she tries to fight for composure and as a result, you end up caring an awful lot about butchery. That’s an accomplishment, no?
It’s also about damn time that Chef Oh turned his attention toward his dutiful son. Perhaps if he’d done so earlier, the situation between the brothers would not have deteriorated to this level. But it’s better late than never, I suppose, and even if he doesn’t see eye to eye with Bong-joo on how to run Oonamjeong, he must admit that Bong-joo has given a lot of himself to the restaurant and to fulfilling his father’s vision (even if he gets it wrong sometimes).
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Although it’s inevitable that both Oonamjeong and Daejin must make it to the final round, I appreciated how the series built the drama in getting both teams there. Oonamjeong — who won the cow unfairly to begin with — must be punished for their underhandedness, so it’s fitting that they’re penalized for their treatment of it. The difficulty in the first challenge lies in the fact that the teams had to choose premium grade beef before the cow was butchered, which tests their understanding of the animal on a fundamental level — so while they lucked out with a great cow, they missed in the “fundamental understanding” category by their manhandling of the animal once they had it. They’d been so overconfident that they missed a key element; pride cometh before a fall, and such as.
Daejin, on the other hand, must be the underdog, so they’re running an uphill race here. Sure they were beaten in the cow selection, but they made up for it in their handling of the animal and wound up the decisive winner in Round 1.
In Round 2, Mr. Kang was shown to be clearly superior to his rivals, but again we needed to make Daejin the underdog, and what better way to do that than handicap him? Again, Oonamjeong stoops to sneaky tactics (yes, the injury was partially accidental but I’m pretty sure Jong-gu wanted Mr. Kang to be injured when he threw the table over). Their sly behavior earns them the win, but again they’re penalized. Not severely, but enough that their win is polluted.
The search for the perfect charcoal again shows philosophical differences between teams. Like with the first round, Oonamjeong spares no expense ordering expensive charcoal from multiple locations, stockpiling their resources so that they have the best from which to choose. The stage is being set, I believe, to demonstrate that that the quality of a product is only as good as the one in charge of its handling. Or a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so to speak. Oonamjeong’s weak link has been their character, not their materials. Their character flaws lead them to do unworthy things, and thus their weak character will probably be their undoing.
Naturally, the opposite is true for Team Sung-chan. He’s our noble hero, so his character is top-notch stuff; in contrast, it’s his circumstances that prove to be his greatest obstacles. In light of these hindrances, it takes creativity mixed with some good fortune to win the day. However, they make sure to show that even when Sung-chan is blessed with good fortune, it’s not merely happenstance. Rather, it’s as if to say that Sung-chan is blessed with good fortune because of the strength of his character. I.e., he may have come across a good cow by chance, but it was the way he comported himself that enabled him to secure its use.
Hubris is a killer, and Oonamjeong smacks of it. They’ve earned the right to have pride in their quality, but under Min-woo and Choi Jong-gu’s guidance, Oonamjeong is veering into snobbish, overconfident territory. It’s this kind of attitude that caused them to renege on letting Seok-dong compete in the beef battle, even though he won the right to compete. When push comes to shove, Oonamjeong is too cautious to let Seok-dong represent them, and would rather lose him.
When Choi Jong-gu is rehired and promoted after the butchery win, he fires the new chef (the oddly effeminate Dal-pyung), who accepts the decision gracefully. Dal-pyung gives Jong-gu some well-meaning goodbye advice: “Don’t work too hard trying to become the best. Rather than working to become the best, it’s better to do your best trying to become the best.” Jong-gu doesn’t take the advice to heart, but this is the kind of statement — however cheesy it may sound — that epitomizes the difference between the Bong-joo and Sung-chan Philosophies of Life and Chefdom.