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'Gourmet' offers visual taste of Korean cuisine

2008/03/12 | 623 views | Permalink | Source

Food has rarely played a leading role in a miniseries. But in "Gourmet" ("Sikgaek"), the SBS drama slated to air on May 26, food takes center stage. And not just any kind of food. Korean cuisine gets the spotlight this time around.

Based on Huh Young-man's bestselling comic book series of the same name, this 24-episode drama follows Korean chef Seong-chan, played by Kim Rae-won, on his travels throughout Korea. Driving a beat-up truck, Seong-chan searches for the essence of Korean food, looking for it in the remotest parts of this country.

With cuisine playing such a big role, the production team needed a food expert. And they knew exactly who to turn to.

Kim Su-jin-I, president of her own food consulting group, Food and Culture Korea, handled food direction for the film version of Huh Young-man's "Sikgaek", which hit screens nationwide as "Le Grand Chef", and topped national charts last year.

The mouthwatering dishes cooked up on the big screen served as testimony to her ability to turn Korean cuisine into a showstopper. Kim became a natural shoo-in for the position of food director for the drama.

She seized the opportunity. Little did she know what she was getting herself into.

"A drama is much more difficult than a movie", said Kim, 52, in an interview with The Korea Herald. "This drama shows more than the movie did. There is more research, more sketches, and more designs, and we also have to decide how to plate the food".

The film version provided her with a storyboard, making it easier for her to plan out each food scene. But, with this drama, she has to do everything from scratch.

"We look at the script in advance, and we need to figure out how the food will appear". But that's just the beginning of the process.

Kim plays composer and conductor to her team of 25. She reads the script in advance, finding the scenes which involve food. After noting all food scenes, she carefully plans out each scene before prepping the ingredients with her team the night before filming.

"For example, what we are filming that day involves making food for 32 people", said Kim. "The day before, we have to prepare all of the ingredients. We need to make notes on what each actor will be cooking, from what step to what step ... And then, the day we film, we post up these notes here and there".

The day of filming starts at dawn for Kim and her team. In the wee hours of the morning, they hit the markets, picking the ingredients that need to be extra-fresh when they arrive on set.

After getting all the needed ingredients together, she oversees the cooking and plating while directing the actors, and monitoring the screen with the director on set.

"You have to teach on set", said Kim. "We take the food and say, 'Kim Rae-won, you will be cooking this today, so follow through with these actions in this order and like this'. That way, the actors won't make any mistakes, and we can all work together quickly.

"And, in order to get the food to look fresh and tasty, we must make the same dish over and over again", she added.

When the scene involves eating the food, they need to make about eight sets of the same dish for each actor.

"It's war", she mused.

That much work requires three teams. Kim calls them teams A, B and C. Team A stays on set. Team B handles all the cooking. And Team C handles all the supplies.

Just how do all these people communicate with each other? They do it the old-fashioned way. "We use walkie-talkies", Kim said.

Hard to imagine this well-groomed, petite woman barking out orders on such a contraption, but apparently it's all in a day's work.

But, long before all the walkie-talkies, prepping and filming came into play, Kim was hard at work training the actors in their roles as chefs. It was no easy matter getting two highly inexperienced actors to wield a knife with expertise.

"Kim Rae-won was already quite good at basic cooking", but she couldn't say the same for Kwon Oh-jung and Won Ki-joon, who play rival chefs in "Gourmet" ("Sikgaek").

"But, in the case of Kwon Oh-jung and Won Ki-joon, they didn't know how to use a knife at all", explained Kim. "So, we started with learning how to julienne five daikon radishes a day. It takes about three hours to mince five large daikon radishes at first. But Kwon and Won worked really hard. They would come for three to four hours at a time, and just julienne radishes".

After learning how to mince them, all three actors learned how to cut the radishes into half moons, thin slices and perfect cubes.

"Later on, when you see them on screen chopping at radishes you will be surprised", said Kim with pride. "The radish just flies".

And radishes aren't the only thing they know how to cook. Each actor has his own special dish.

According to the food director, Kim Rae-won makes a great cheonggukjang -- a fermented miso bean stew. Won Ki-joon whips up a beautiful pomegranate-shaped dumpling soup, while Kwon Oh-jung cooks a solid shinsollo -- a complicated Joseon-era dish.

In fact, they have gotten so good at cooking over those six weeks of intensive training that, according to Kim, "the director says that we should hold a cooking competition for them later on".

To get a visual taste of their dishes and those of food director Kim and her team, just wait til May 26 when the first episode airs on SBS.

By Jean Oh

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