Chef's Table (2015–…): Season 3, Episode 1 - Jeong Kwan - full transcript

[insects trilling]

[birds chirping]

[Jeong Kwan in Korean]
With food...

we can share
and communicate our emotions.

It's that mindset of sharing
that is really what you're eating.

There is no difference between cooking...

and pursuing Buddha's way.

It's been almost half a century
since I entered this way.

I did it

in pursuit of enlightenment.

I am not a chef.

I am a monk.

[opening theme playing]

[horns honking]

[Jeff Gordinier] There was a day
at the New York Times when I got an e-mail

that Jeong Kwan
was going to be cooking lunch

at Le Bernardin here in New York City.

So I was thinking, you know,

rice bowls and maybe yams that have been
boiled past the point of solidity.

So I actually said no.
I actually almost blew off this event.

Um, and then I got a personal call from
Eric Ripert, the chef at Le Bernardin,

and he said, "I understand you said no
to the Jeong Kwan lunch." [chuckles]

And I said, "Yes, I did. I'm quite busy.
I have a lot of deadlines."

And, uh, he said, "You don't understand.

You have to come to this.
This is very special.

This is a command performance.
I insist that you come to this."

And I was like, "Okay, yes, Chef."
[chuckles] You know, "Oui, Chef."

When Eric Ripert suggests
it's a command performance, you listen.

And... not to be hyperbolic,

but it was life changing
to attend this lunch.

I went to Korea because I was very curious
about Korean culture.

Because I am Buddhist, I knew
they have a lot of temples and monasteries

and their food is famous.

I wanted to go and learn
and taste the food

and discuss with the monks and nuns,
and find out what it was.

I was very curious about it.

Jeong Kwan is a nun.

She's extremely compassionate.

She's very advanced in Buddhism,

and she happens to be a great cook.

Jeong Kwan doesn't run a restaurant.

She cooks for herself

and for the nuns
who are living in hermitage

and for the people who visit her.

Jeong Kwan is very spontaneous
in her cooking.

At the same time,
she keeps a certain tradition,

but she breaks a lot of rules.

And that makes her very exceptional
as a chef, as a cook.

[Jeff] Eric Ripert flew her to New York
so that she could cook for people here.

I was sitting with a bunch of journalists.

Even if I had known what to expect,

I could not have imagined
how beautiful it would be,

how sublime this food would be.

You would look at these plates,

and they could easily have passed
for plates served at Noma,

at Benu in San Francisco,
at Blanca in Brooklyn.

Without a blink, you could have
served them at those restaurants

and people would have...

marveled at how beautiful
and how delicious these dishes were.

Everyone at this table,
we were looking at each other like,

"Oh, my God. What is this?"

This was as good as any meal you can get
from any chef on the planet.

And as soon as the meal was over,
I, sort of...

emotionally went up to Eric Ripert,
and I was like, "I have to go to Korea.

I have to learn more about this cuisine.
I have to learn more about Jeong Kwan."

[nuns chanting]

[mokugyo playing]

[bonsho tolling]

[bonsho tolling]


[bonsho tolls]

[strikes mokugyo]


[Jeong Kwan]
Everyone calls it "temple food."

The Koreans...

even the monks.

Secular food is focused
on creating dynamic energy.

But temple food

keeps a person's mind calm and static.

When making temple food,
there are five ingredients we don't use:

garlic, onions, scallions,
chives and leeks.

Those are the five pungent spices.

Those five spices are sources
of spiritual energy, but...

too much of that energy
will prevent a monk's spirit

from achieving a state of calmness.

This is a distraction to meditation.

Temple food, the food monks eat,

is flavored with nature.

You see, temple food is extremely simple.

But it uses a lot of seasonings...

like curcuma, sichuan pepper,
brown pepper, shiso.

We never use instant ingredients.

The flavor is based on salt,
soy paste, soy sauce and chili paste.

These ingredients awaken your mind.
They keep you aware.

Temple food is deeply connected

to spiritual energy.

[bonsho tolling]

I was born in Yeongju,

a city in North Gyeongsang province.

I was the fifth
of seven brothers and sisters

and the third daughter.

Is it done?

We had a small farm
and a very happy family.

When I was six or seven...

I enjoyed cooking very much.

I had seen my mother making noodles.

One day,
I tried making them for my parents,

who worked so hard on the farm.

Just as I was finishing the noodles...

my parents returned home.

My mother looked at me and asked...

"Where did you learn to make this?"

I said, "I learned from watching you...

to make you happy."

She patted me on the shoulder
and praised me by saying,

"You will live well one day."

When I felt the love of my mother,

I wanted to become like her.

The porridge is done.

I learned the mother's way from my mother.

Have some, sister monk.

Preparing a lot of food to share.

As a monk, I try to practice such a mind,
a mother's mind.

A monk is everyone's mother...


...not just to a family,

but to the whole community.

Let us start our meal service.


[Jeff] I wish I could eat
Jeong Kwan's food

every day for a month
and just see what happens.

I have a feeling
that I would feel so good. [laughs]

On the monastery grounds,
we're eating all Jeong Kwan's food,

and you start to feel transformed.

She's like a walking advertisement
for cooking because she looks so young,

she has so much energy...

You know, I really think she's just aware.

She's aware of the weather.
She's aware of your mood.

So much of Buddhist practice
is about mindfulness and attention.

It's about paying attention.

And, in a way,
her cooking is about paying attention.

There was this incredible deliberation
and care.

There was just a different kind of care

than even you find
in the best restaurants.

A good example is that tea...
the lotus tea,

which was, in a way, its own metaphor
for the delicacy of enlightenment.

It's a study in subtlety.

It's an expression, in liquid form,
of maybe what enlightenment feels like.

That's pretty heavy.

And yet, it really was just so subtle

that it was
just on the edge of being water...

but not. It wasn't.

It was... it was obviously infused
with this floral quality,

and I couldn't get enough of it,
which is... [chuckles]

I actually did want to just, like,

down a lot of the enlightenment tea,
you know? [chuckles]

When I was young,
my father would say...

"A woman should be able
to make seven dishes with straw.

Only then does she deserve
a good husband."

One day, I got angry.

When my father said that, I told him,

"No, Father.
I'm not trying to find a good husband.

I will live in a small shack
out in the mountains...

surrounded by nature.

I will live all alone."

He said, "Then I will let you stay
up in the mountains,

but I will feel sad."

And, as he said this...

he cried.

I asked, "Why are you crying?"

He answered...

"How can a young girl like you
think like that?"

I thought I had to be alone to be free.

[Jeff] The most remarkable thing to me

about Jeong Kwan's cooking
has to do with time.

So you say, "Well, how does she achieve
so much impact on your palate

with no garlic, no onions,
no meat, no dairy, et cetera?"

This is part of it.
She's using time.

She's playing a long game,

and she's dealing with a practice
that is, in fact, centuries old.

[Jeff] She's using fermentation,

and she's using the slow development
of these undercurrents of flavor.

Kimchi is an incredible example of this.

Kind of the alchemy of fermentation
is so amazing to me because, essentially,

it's taking ingredients, adding salt,
adding what's in the air, adding time,

and watching them transform.

That cabbage, that is becoming,
basically, a preserve.

When something ferments,
it's a transformation of the product.

You create, through the process,
another life.

[Jeong Kwan] All year long,
plants grow by the energy of nature,

the universe, the earth and human labor.

It's man's greed
that wants the plants to grow faster

and grow bigger and prettier.

That is why some resort
to chemical substances.

But I let the plants in my garden
grow as they want.

[Jeff] I'd never seen a garden like this.

You know,
if you go to Blue Hill at Stone Barns,

you see this incredibly meticulous,

almost Calvin Klein garden.

Like, it looks like some fashion designer
has designed this beautiful farm.

You go to Jeong Kwan's garden,
it's a mess.

It's like, "Where does the garden begin
and the forest end?"

There's not really any barriers.

And she said, "Sometimes a feral pig
will come in and make off with a squash,

and that's fine.
You know, that's just nature."

There's insects, and she says,
"Well, they're insects.

They're part of nature.
I don't do anything to keep them off."

And I was like, "Wow. [chuckles]
Organic? Organic has nothing on this."

[Eric] Cultivating, in temple food,

it's very important
that you apply the same process

of putting compassion, love,
good energy into the seed

that will grow as a plant.

And so she does that, but she doesn't care
if the vegetables look beautiful.

She doesn't care if the leaf
that an insect ate is perfect.

It's not about that.

It's about sharing, actually, with nature,
and the garden ultimately looks beautiful.

It's very harmonious,
the way that the plants grow together,

and I find it very charming.

She was just out there, growing
and plucking things and letting it be.

She's just trusting that air and water
and sunlight will produce beautiful food.

[Jeong Kwan] After planting the seeds,
I just watch them grow.

They grow in snow, rain,
wind and sunlight.

When it's hot, they grow in heat.
When it's cold, they grow in cold.

I make food from these vegetables
with a blissful mind.

And I eat the vegetables with joy.

[horns honking]

[indistinct chatter]

[food sizzling]

I periodically leave the temple
and go into the city.

[turnstile dings and buzzes]

I want to communicate
with everyone through food.

So I lecture at the Department
of Culinary Arts at Jeonju University.

I have been lecturing
on vegetarian cooking

for five years.

Sugar acts as a preservative.

It acts as a preservative,

which is why we hardly use any sugar.

That's why temple food is considered
healthy and good for your well-being.

Today's young people
have a different way of eating.

Their eating habits
have become westernized.

And with the propagation of fast foods,

they have experienced
a great change in food culture.

[speaking Korean]

I teach because I want the world

to be united
through healthy and happy food

and to thrive together.

Whenever you have leftover flour
or you throw away a lot of ingredients,

that is not acceptable.

You must treasure the ingredients.

I don't consider my activities
to be teaching.

It is communication.

-[speaking Korean]
-[all] Whoa!

I lecture on the spirit,

the definition of temple food,

why the monks eat temple food,

and how you can change yourself
with temple food

even if you are not a monk.

You need to taste it and right away
understand what is missing.

The tongue is just one part.
All your five senses must move.

The five senses are body, feeling,
perception, intention, and consciousness.

We need to take these things
into consideration when cooking.

Although it is merely progress
toward a goal...

the very action of progressing
with the greatest passion,

with the greatest energy...

is a kind of an enlightenment.

[speaking Korean]

[birds chirping]

When I was 17,
my mother suddenly passed away.

I was deeply upset when she died so early.

And I realized there was no guarantee

that I wouldn't give my children
the same kind of pain one day.

I vowed never to pass down that pain.

One day, I just disappeared...

without telling anyone.

I didn't take anything with me.

I just decided to be a monk.

In 1974, I left home...

and came to the temple.

The winter sun was setting.

I got off the bus.

I had nothing in my hands.

No money. No things.

Just a small girl...

going step by step up a mountain.

When I looked up, I saw an old monk.

She asked,
"Did you come here to live?"

I answered, "How did you know?

Yes. I am here to stay."

My mother granted me
the opportunity to enter this temple.

Even today,
I thank her for her mercifulness

and her compassion

for allowing my pursuit...

of the freedom.

[birds chirping]

Soy sauce... [sighs]

Soy sauce makes me excited
just thinking about it.

Every food is recreated by soy sauce.

Soy beans, salt and water,

in harmony, through time.

It is... the basis of seasonings...

the foundation.

There are sauces aged
five years, ten years...

aged for 100 years.

These kinds of soy sauces
are passed down for generations.

They are heirlooms.

If you look into yourself,
you see past, present and future.

You see that time revolves endlessly.

You can see the past from the present.

By looking into myself,
I see my grandmother, my mother,

the elders in the temple,
and me.

As a result, by making soy sauce,

I am reliving the wisdom of my ancestors.

I am reliving them.

It's not important who or when.

What is important
is that I'm doing it in the present.

I use soy sauce,

and I acknowledge its importance.

It is no longer just me
that's doing things.

It's me in the past,
in the present,

and even in the future.

Soy sauce is eternal.
It is life itself.

[bonsho tolling]

-[mokugyo playing]
-[monk chanting]

[bonsho tolling]

[Jeong Kwan] When you become a monk,

it's not about learning
Buddhism more deeply.

It's about living with Buddhism.

Living with it...

eating with it...



chopping wood...

pulling weeds...

All of these things become a study.

This is perhaps Buddhism itself.

[chanting continues]

When I was 17 years old,
I entered the way of a monk.

It was very hard for a young girl.

I had to wake up every day
at 3:00 in the morning.

And, still groggy,
I'd go to morning prayers...

light a fire in the kitchen
and cook breakfast.

Eat breakfast at 6:00
and pray again.

Pray again at 9:00.

Eat lunch at 12:00.

It repeated endlessly without stopping.

I was at the age
where you still need a lot of sleep.

At first, that was the most painful part.
Not enough sleep.

I was always sneaking away
to try and sleep.

One warm spring day,
after chopping wood,

I climbed up a tree and I fell asleep.

[imitates snake hissing]
I felt something crawling by me.

So I opened my eyes,

and I saw a huge snake
that came down from the tree.

I watched...
[imitates snake hissing]

as it crawled down my neck.

I wasn't worried.
I just fell back asleep.

-[mokugyo playing]
-[chanting continues]

So I wrote to my father...

[mokugyo tempo quickens]

"Father, I can't take it anymore.

Come and take me back home."

[all chanting]

A few days later, my father came.

"My daughter says it is painful for her
to wake up so early,

so I will take her home."

Then the elders said...

"We will let you sleep in the morning.

Sleep later and we will let you
skip the early morning prayers."

[chanting continues]

[Jeong Kwan] Everyone cried.

My father and my brothers
and sisters also cried.

So when I wrote to my father,

it wasn't because I actually wanted
to go home.

I just wanted to see my family
one more time.

[chanting continues]

Curled squash.

The visitors brought these with them
for us to eat on Buddha's birthday.

[all laughing]

[Jeong Kwan] Let's go soak them.

[speaking Korean]

[Jeff] We're at a time now

where restaurants
have their Instagram accounts.

They have Facebook.
They have Twitter.

The chefs are promoting themselves.
The chefs have cookbooks.

The chefs have celebrity TV shows.

We live in a culture
that wants to worship these chefs,

and that would run counter
to everything that Jeong Kwan stands for.

If people take away, like,
"Oh, Jeong Kwan is a new star chef,"

that's the wrong lesson.

[Jeong Kwan] Mmm!

This is not ego food.

[Eric] Very often,
in the restaurant community,

we are tempted
to cook with the ego.

We are distracted by the stars,
and by the rewards,

and by, "Are we going to get
the ratings?" and so on.

In temple food, it's not about competing
with another monastery.

There's no such thing as,

"Okay, let's have a competition
of the best soup today,

and let's have
all the nuns coming together,

and we have a judge
and you have a winner."

It's not about that at all.

Jeong Kwan has no ego.

Creativity and ego cannot go together.

If you free yourself
from the comparing and jealous mind,

your creativity opens up endlessly.

Just as water springs from a fountain,
creativity springs from every moment.

You must not be your own obstacle.

You must not be owned
by the environment you are in.

You must own the environment,
the phenomenal world around you.

You must be able to freely move
in and out of your mind.

This is being free.

There is no way
you can't open up your creativity.

There is no ego to speak of.

That is my belief.

[birds chirping]

[mokugyo playing]

[monks chanting]

[Jeong Kwan] We will now
end the prayer ceremony

of Buddha's birthday
of the Buddhist year 2560.

Please help yourself to the temple food.

Not too much, not too little.

Please eat Buddha's food and be healthy.

My father was 70 years old
and was reflecting upon his life.

He must have felt sorry for me

because I was a monk and never married.

[both speaking Korean]

So he came to the temple to live with me.

He wanted to know,
"How do these monks live?"

He wanted to experience it for himself.

[speaking Korean and laughing]

-[monks chanting]
-[mokugyo playing]

[speaking Korean]

[indistinct chatter]

At first, he complained.

One day, he comes to dinner and gets mad.

"Everything you eat is vegetarian."

"How do you live
without eating any meat at all?"

[Jeong Kwan speaking Korean]

-[both speaking Korean]
-[Jeong Kwan chuckles]

My father said,
"I like all the food.

It is clean and elegant,
but I don't have any energy."

He thought he couldn't
get energy from the food

because there wasn't any meat or fish.

So he asked me,
"What's the best food monks eat?"

So I cooked shiitake mushrooms.

I fried them in a pan

with sesame oil and soy sauce.

I gave him the food and told him to eat it
quietly in the mountains near the valley.

[sighs] "This is better than meat!

You can indeed live without meat
since you have this."

He realized there must be
a kind of peacefulness

in this way of living.

After being there a month,
he called me by my secular name.

I am going back home without worries.

Live well.

They say even the king

does three bows to a monk.

Now I will bow to you."

So my 70-year-old father

bowed to me three times.

And he left.

One week later, he passed in peace,
like falling asleep.

That was his last.

Because of my parents,
I could become a monk.

And I prayed for them

to be happy in the next life.

Even today,
when I see something beautiful,

or make or see beautiful food...

I thank my parents
for their energy and virtue.

The food I prepare is an expression
of gratitude to my parents.

They let me become who I am.

[birds chirping]

[bonsho tolling]

[mokugyo playing]


Being with Jeong Kwan
has been a very special experience for me.

[continues chanting]

[Eric] I learned, of course,
techniques that I didn't know...

flavors that I've never tasted before,
ingredients that are foreign to me.

But her influence is more philosophy
than the techniques.

Her philosophy is Buddhist philosophy.

It's about being in the present.

It's about respecting the ingredients...

the planet...

making people happy...

how to be happy in the process...

how to put good energy into the food.

It's all of that.

That is the big change, uh, in my life.

That's the influence of Jeong Kwan.

We were touring the grounds,
and she took my arm...

and she, without a word,
led me down to this creek.

And she sort of walked me
to the middle of this small bridge.

There's water flowing underneath.

And she went like this...

And she was kind of looking into my eyes.

She wanted me to listen.

This is the moment we never get to have
in contemporary life,

just listening to the water.

That lasted for, like, a minute or two.
We just sat there listening to the water.

And then, all of a sudden,
she looked into my eyes,

and she said, in English,

[birds chirping]

That said everything about her cooking.

It said everything about her practice.

It said everything about her worldview.

The world itself is an orchestra,

that nature itself is an orchestra,
that every piece is working together.

And that creates who we are.
That creates what we eat.

That creates what she cooks.

I was... stunned by this. [chuckles]

And I... I really did sit there thinking,
"That's it. That's the whole...

That's what this is all about."

I make food as a meditation.

I am living my life as a monk
with a blissful mind...

and freedom.

I wish you...

a healthy, happy life.

Thank you.

[in English] Thank you so much.