Gourmet got off to a really good start.
I understand why it’s winning the Monday-Tuesday drama battle (it’s poised to break the 20% mark any day now) because it’s well-made, well-directed, well-acted, and well-paced. (The assured pacing is more readily achieved in SBS’s recent trend of airing dramas that are produced prior to airing, which allows for a more finished and complete feel.) On top of that, the drama is beautifully shot — and there’s plenty of FOOD PORN!
But it’s not just about food. Obviously, the plot IS food-related, but Gourmet doesn’t forget that at the heart of any successful drama is the ability to draw upon its characters and create emotional moments, and it accomplishes that. Kim Rae-won is wonderful in his role, and does a lovely, layered job portraying depth to his good-natured character. While the drama starts with a slow build, I found that I liked it more and more as I kept going.
Rather than do strict episode-by-episode recaps, I’ve kinda thrown everything together into a four-episode analysis, with some summarizing in there as well. It seemed appropriate — because while the initial plot is pretty straightforward for these first four hours, Gourmet‘s strength isn’t in the mere plot points themselves but in the underlying themes that support them.
SONG OF THE DAY
Gourmet OST – “내 꿈을 향해서” by Lemon Tree (Chasing my dream) [ Download ]
Gourmet inhabits the world of traditional Korean cuisine. And when I say “traditional,” I don’t mean familiar-home-cooking kind of tradition, I mean distinguished, steeped-in-generations-of-history tradition. Food that sets The Ultimate Standard for Korean fare, merely than everyday reproductions of it. The characters work at Oonamjeong [운암정], a super-classy restaurant that is known for the best Korean food in the nation. It’s not simply a fancy dining experience, but descended from the former imperial chefs who attended the emperor (the last imperial chef was the grandfather of the current executive chef, who is Kim Rae-won’s adoptive father).
I’m hardly a gourmet, but Gourmet‘s appeal goes beyond merely foodies — it’s an appreciation of Korean culture manifested through its cooking. Kind of like Daejanggeum, but in a contemporary context. I think of Korean food as cheap, hearty, and delicious — each home cook has her (or his, but let’s face it, mostly her) secret techniques for getting the perfect kimchi seasoning, or kalbi beef marinade — but by and large it’s accessible and common, and has gone for centuries without a lot of haute cuisine applications. Perhaps that’s just a common misconception, but that’s how I’ve always seen it.
Gourmet, however, goes the other way and sets its characters in the uppermost echelons of haute Korean cuisine. I’m not familiar with the Korean culinary world, so someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this kind of elevated Korean food is a creation of the manhwa upon which the drama is based. Kind of like how Goong created its modern monarchy and the high society that accompanied it.
By so doing, Gourmet brings technique and elegance back to Korean cooking. However — and this is key! — it doesn’t get mired in it either. Koreans often say, “Cooking is from the heart” (as in, one should cook with sincerity and affection). Despite the haute cuisine world he inhabits, Kim Rae-won’s character is one of the few who seems to remember this. Which is why he’s our hero, natch.
STORY & CHARACTERS
Our hero: LEE SUNG-CHAN (Kim Rae-won), 28-ish years old. He was raised as the son of Oonamjeong’s current executive chef, Chef Oh, alongside adopted big bro BONG-JOO (Kwon Oh-joong). Sung-chan and Bong-joo have a good relationship and act as true brothers even though Bong-joo was already fourteen when his father brought Sung-chan home and announced he was going to be a part of their family.
Sung-chan had something of a misguided youth, causing no end of trouble until he picked up cooking at a relatively late age. Thus he lacks the classical training of his older brother (who studied assiduously to follow in his father’s footsteps since the age of fifteen) but he has a raw talent that his father recognizes. Although he’s still lacking in discipline, he’s creative and passionate about cooking, and jumps into challenges wholeheartedly. In the first episode, he is promoted from sous chef to full chef (albeit a junior one) after he impresses his father with one of his innovations. Sung-chan’s promotion marks a meteoric rise, career-wise, which impresses most of his fellow chefs except for some who are jealous of his success. With his good-natured personality, Sung-chan is well-liked by most.
Chef Oh, the aging executive chef of Oonamjeong, is a descendant of the line of former imperial chefs — he’s the grandson of the man pictured, the last imperial chef. The chef is photographed with the last emperor, upon whom he’d made a strong impression with his devotion and sincerity upon the eve of the empire’s takeover by Japanese rule in 1910.
I’m not sure if the imperial chef was a position that was exclusively hereditary, but it’s clear that it’s at least mostly hereditary, because everyone expects Oonamjeong’s next executive chef to be Bong-joo. He’s currently the well-respected head chef in the kitchen (while Chef Oh is the top guy, he doesn’t do the everyday cooking).
Bong-joo also has a romantic vibe going with JOO-HEE (Kim So-yeon), the kind, poised secretary to his father. She’s de facto manager of Oonamjeong and always comes through in a crisis with nary a hair out of place. She’s like executive assistant, manager, and PR representative all in one. Their romance, however, is more implied than overt; they both know they like each other, but they aren’t dating. And yet both Bong-joo and Joo-hee’s father seem to expect them to end up married.
Perhaps the stalled momentum of their romance can be attributed to the fact that (in addition to Bong-joo not taking the initiative) Joo-hee may have feelings for Sung-chan. It’s unclear in the first four episodes what her feelings are, exactly, because while she does care for Bong-joo, she also cares for Sung-chan. Most of the time it’s like an older sister looking out for her errant younger brother, but sometimes there’s a moment, a little something in the way she looks at him. For his part, Sung-chan likes her back, but I interpret that as a schoolboy crush mixed with genuine respect. Sung-chan’s feelings for Joo-hee aren’t serious (as I see it), but hers for him may become a problem. Not that she’d do anything nefarious — she’s too good-hearted and professional for that — but they may cause issues in her relationship with Bong-joo.
Enter JIN-SOO (Nam Sang-mi, adorable as ever). She’s a foodie with ambitions of being a food critic, and has come to Seoul to take the reporters’ exam at a major newspaper. To do well, she feels she must eat at Oonamjeong first, and through a series of mishaps, both misses her exam and clashes with Sung-chan. She determines to stay in Seoul and take a later exam for another newspaper, and in the interim manages to score a job working as a server (in training) at the restarant.
Rounding out the cast, we also have MIN-WOO (Won Ki-joon), a senior chef ranked just below Bong-joo who looks down on Sung-chan in a mix of jealousy and derision. Min-woo is the guy you really hate to see in power — he’s skilled, but his personal shortcomings make him a nightmare to be around. He’s not a completely one-sided villain (he has genuine respect for Bong-joo), but he feels threatened because although Sung-chan may have skills, he hasn’t earned his dues and worked his way up properly. He feels that Chef Oh’s favoritism of Sung-chan — even over his own son — is unfair.
EPISODE 1, IN BRIEF
Sung-chan is promoted to chef and is given a set of knives by his father. Min-woo is overcome with indignity. When Sung-chan’s knives fall in transit while the chefs are setting up for a special event, Min-woo kicks them away. Thus Sung-chan is reduced to a panic, and has to finish his cooking demonstration with his brother’s knife.
When a group of Japanese dignitaries arrive to the event late, unexpectedly, both Bong-joo and Min-woo refuse to go out of their way to accommodate them. (It’s not assiness — it shows how seriously they take Oonamjeong’s reputation that they are unwilling to cook in less-than-ideal circumstances, lest the resource restrictions produce inferior food and therefore tarnish their name.) Sung-chan, however, steps in and says he has extra fish, and agrees to accommodate the guests. They love the cooking. Day is saved.
Chef Oh decides to make the announcement of his successor official, and everyone expects it to be Bong-joo. Thus all are shocked when he announces, instead, a competition to determine his successor.
EPISODE 2, IN BRIEF
Bong-joo is hurt by his father’s announcement, which is tantamount to him being shoved aside. But he tells his father he’ll play the game and win. When Chef Oh asks for all interested applicants, two others step up: Min-woo and Sung-chan. They’re sorry about hurting Bong-joo’s feelings, but feel this is a chance of a lifetime.
Thus begins the first challenge: to use a part of a fish that currently has no good cooking application: the bladder. They are given the fish and three days. Min-woo spends the time perfecting his dumpling dish; Sung-chan beats his head trying to come up with a good dish; and Bong-joo stays out of the kitchen.
On the day of the competition, a mishap ruins Sung-chan’s fish bladder, forcing him to improvise his concept, originally a variation on soondae (a type of blood sausage made with intestine). Bong-joo comes in at the last minute and wows with his seafood mixed rice (pictured below, left), having blanched and cooked the bladder to perfect consistency to rid them of their fishy smell. And Min-woo’s dumpling dish (below, middle) is equally well-executed. But Sung-chan wins for his extra creativeness (I’ll discuss later) and for his improvisation.
A last-minute reservation throws the restaurant into a flurry — a very important, very picky North Korean diplomat is coming. Chef Oh is flummoxed when the man orders, to everyone’s surprise, a very basic and simple cheonggukjang, a type of soup made with fermented soybeans. Eager to distinguish themselves, all three competitors offer to make the dish. But Bong-joo and Min-woo falter when Chef Oh adds the condition that if the chef cannot please the diplomat, he will be cut from the competition. Sung-chan steps up… but fails.
EPISODE 3, IN BRIEF
Min-woo rejoices that Sung-chan will be cut from competition (Bong-joo’s rejoicing is mostly internal, methinks), but Sung-chan is more concerned about his failed dish than the successorship. (Because he’s humble! And our hero!) He determines to see the challenge through and prove himself, and outdoes himself trying to pin the source of the problem. Is it the ingredients? His cooking technique? Once he thinks he knows the problem, Sung-chan haunts the diplomat’s hotel to plead for a second chance. Using all his newfound knowledge, he makes the cheonggukjang again, this time to wild success. The extremely picky diplomat is not only impressed, he’s touched by Sung-chan’s attentiveness. Sung-chan even lands mention in the newpaper.
The problem turned out to be the soybeans, which have been fermented using an agent to make them smell less, particularly since Oonamjeong has so many Western patrons. (I can vouch that cheonggukjang smells like rotting feet, though it tastes yummy.) Chef Oh says this is his failing, since there’s no way Sung-chan could have succeeded with the ingredients given, and Sung-chan is reinstated into the competition.
The second challenge involves making a dish to “suit” the special plate each participant is given. Sung-chan comes up with a concept to use common, affordable ingredients. But when he shares his idea with one of the elderly, eccentric cooks (and judges), the man shatters his bowl. Cheap food should be served with cheap dishes! In horror, Sung-chan must improvise, and he goes out to break one of the oversize kimchi-fermenting jars, using a jagged piece to serve his kimchi salad, which is placed in a fried-tofu shell. Meanwhile, Min-woo wows with his elegant blowfish sashimi — served with a tiny hint of the blowfish poison — and Bong-joo impresses with his variation on the traditional Korean chicken stew, samgaetang. This time, Bong-joo wins. (Again, I’ll discuss later.)
EPISODE 4, IN BRIEF
The final challenge: Use a mountain hen to make a classic Oonamjeong dish. It was a trademark dish of the former head chef, who didn’t pass along the recipe before he died. The catch? The current contestants have never tasted it.
Bong-joo overhears the judges discussing the upcoming challenge, and confronts his father when he says that if there’s no clear winner, he’s going to pick Sung-chan. Chef Oh reveals a devastating truth: Bong-joo isn’t the descendant of the last imperial chef. Sung-chan is. It’s a fact that Chef Oh has guarded in accordance to the wishes of Sung-chan’s great-grandfather (here we get into political intrigue). The Oh family has assumed the lineage that belongs to the Lee (Sung-chan’s) family, although not necessarily maliciously — Chef Oh wasn’t even aware he wasn’t the rightful descendant until he was in his thirties. He believes that Sung-chan is the rightful heir, and will wipe the “debt” that Oh’s family owes to Sung-chan’s. Bong-joo is dumbstruck — he put his entire life into this lie. Why did his father push him to cook if he wasn’t the rightful successor? Chef Oh answers that Sung-chan had exhibited no interest in cooking until later; ostensibly he thought it better to perpetuate the line than to let it die out.
Bong-joo reveals this truth to Sung-chan, who returns from happily picking ingredients for the dish after recalling, in a burst of excitement, that he’d tasted it once in his youth. (Jin-soo [Nam Sang-mi] has assumed the role of his assistant, to Sung-chan’s annoyance.) This whole competition was designed to hand the successorship to Sung-chan, and it’s no coincidence that Sung-chan’s the only one who tasted the dish before. Crushed and feeling deceived, Sung-chan angrily throws his ingredients into the lake. He tells his father he’s dropping out of the competition, although he doesn’t give the real reason, merely saying that Bong-joo is the rightful successor. The next day he’s gone, having given up not only the competition but his position as a chef.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT (har, har)
Gourmet plays with a classic conflict: talent versus training. We have the technically skilled senior chefs Bong-joo and Min-woo representing the latter, while Sung-chan represents raw talent. Sung-chan takes cooking a step further, which is why he’s supposedly so good — because Bong-joo and Min-woo are sticklers for technique and classical training. This extends into their work ethics as well, like in Episode 1 when both senior chefs refused to cook for the latecomers, and Sung-chan was happy to meet their needs. Cooking, for Sung-chan, should be flexible and adaptable.
He doesn’t stop until he gets that “Ah, this is it!” moment from his dishes, while you could say that the other two chefs stop when their technique tells them to stop. To be fair, their technical skills are honed much more precisely than Sung-chan’s, and their stopping point usually results in fantastic food. But Sung-chan’s goal is more elusive, and it’s as much about his own effort as it is about the end product. In that way, Sung-chan is a loose cannon. Greater risk of failure, for sure, but greater potential for, well, greatness.
Take, for instance, his first dish, the soondae attempt. Using the fish bladder in place of traditional intestines for the sausage casing, Sung-chan deliberates for days over the perfect filling. He talks to people — an aging cook, a knifemaker — and reads up as much as he can, and is struck with the most unlikely inspirations. For instance, he comes up with his filling after eating a hard-boiled egg and noticing the yolk; he drives by the ocean and collects seawater to use.
Sung-chan’s character has an understanding — or rather, he attempts to meld his understanding, often struggling — of the Korean people and culture that works its way into the food. He thinks about the ingredients and how they contribute to a dish aside from mere taste. Why add salt and water when he can use actual seawater for that genuine essence? And it’s that extra step — steaming his sausage in seawater — that wins him the first challenge. Min-woo is praised for his beautiful design and well-balanced dish, while Bong-joo’s exercised intelligent techniques and incorporated premium ingredients (top-quality rice, incredibly rare vinegar). But Sung-chan’s dish feels like the ocean — he’s captured the essence of the fish and the challenge. His father reminds them, “The foundation for cooking is unleashing the hidden taste within the ingredients.”
Min-woo complains that Sung-chan (1) ruined his fish bladders and (2) was forced to improvise for his final product. Chef Oh says that his original soondae idea actually would have been inferior, and that his ability to produce a superior product in such circumstances is mark of his skill.
Sung-chan gets his inspiration from things in the world — he draws upon real life and real-world experience to reinvent his version — and in that way, he’s also an observer. Yes, his method is a more precarious source of inspiration than drawing upon one’s encyclopedic culinary knowledge, but his approach is more (duh) inspired.
But that doesn’t mean he’s automatically superior to the technical experts. It’s more that their styles are in conflict, not that one is an obvious winner. Bong-joo earns his second win, his thoughtful twist on samgaetang (which he calls honggaetang) by using a rarer type of black hen and steamed ginseng instead of raw. He produces a fine jar in which to deposit the bones, and answers that the bones deserve respect even in discarding. He accompanies the dish with a fine French red wine, because he feels Korean cuisine doesn’t need to be restricted to ancient tradition, and wants to present it on an international stage. (Yes, his explanation is a little fruity, I’ll grant, but in the context of the drama I’m going with it.)
Thus Bong-joo edges out Min-woo, who is cautioned for incorporating poison into his dish. It may have added a flavor kick, but serving poison with food is dangerous. Min-woo protests that he wants to introduce new flavors to the world, but the judges remind him, cooking isn’t for the chef’s benefit, it’s for the diner’s.
Sung-chan, though praised for his kimchi salad’s inventiveness, is also cautioned for his lack of discipline. He’d lost his knives, ruined his fish bladders, and broken his competition plate. Although we can argue that he wasn’t entirely at fault for any or all of these incidents, these are mistakes that are forgivable once, his father explains, but not more.
Kim Rae-won is one of those actors I haven’t really thought about much outside of his work, but IN dramas and movies I find him really solid and likable. He’s very good here, and conveys a lot of emotion. He’s an actor who can act big when he needs to, but then also pull back and be nuanced and quiet. It doesn’t hurt that Sung-chan is a likable, happy, well-mannered guy — but a lot of his charm owes to the actor.
Kwon Oh-joong as Bong-joo is solid as well — I was afraid I’d start disliking Bong-joo after he started feeling threatened by his little bro, but he managed with grace. He does feel all those ugly emotions roiling under the surface, and we get those played nicely on the actor’s face — but he remains a sympathetic character because he’s aware of his own failings, and his sense of self-disgust is enough to show he’s human, but trying to overcome his faults. Brotherly-affection scenes are among my favorites, and those brief moments — one wishing the other good luck, one congratulating the other on his win — say a lot.
There isn’t a lot to say about Nam Sang-mi as Jin-soo so far; I happen to love her so I find her endearing. She’s one of a few actresses I think can pout and act big without seeming like she’s trying too hard to seem cute. Her acting is unselfconscious and natural, and so far I have no complaints. It’s also nice to see that Jin-soo brings out some of Sung-chan’s less perfect traits — she annoys him, she prods, she inserts herself enthusiastically as part of his team — because as much as I like Kim Rae-won, I don’t want him to be a paragon.
I know I’ve talked about Gourmet like it’s the second coming of dramas, which I don’t mean to suggest. If it has a shortcoming, it’s that the series got off to a slow start, and sometimes lulls in a slow moment. It’s why it took me so long to catch up, because the setup, while necessary, was a bit predictable.
But we have some interesting character dynamics, like Bong-joo’s relationship to Joo-hee. Why did he suddenly propose in Episode 3 when they hadn’t been dating? And why did she not answer? In Episode 4, Min-woo realizes he has no shot of winning, but can’t stand the idea of Sung-chan prevailing, so he throws his support to Bong-joo, and proposes sabotaging Sung-chan’s ingredients. Bong-joo resists, but will he stay noble for long? And when Sung-chan’s goofy sous chef overhears the conversation, he stays up all night in front of Sung-chan’s food locker to guard his ingredients in an act of fierce loyalty — a total “Aww” moment for me.
I’ll admit to not having much interest in the imperial intrigue plot, but I’ll go with it. The drama hasn’t dwelt overmuch on it, so it’s not too obtrusive. It gives us justification for placing upstart Sung-chan above his accomplished brother, but as Chef Oh also assures Bong-joo, it’s not a guarantee. Because if Sung-chan truly isn’t up to the task, he won’t be granted Oonamjeong — ergo Bong-joo is still a contender — giving the conflict a bit more edge.