Welcome back to my guide to the Netflix series Chef’s Table. Today, we’re starting on Volume 3. This episode profiles Buddhist monk Jeong Kwan and her simple temple food. You can find links to all previous installments in this guide on this page.
After yesterday’s episode, I was hoping for something better — and this is the form it took. Jeong Kwan admits, from the opening clip, that she isn’t a chef — she’s a monk who cooks. She cooks for her fellow monks and any visitors to her temple.
And sometimes, she comes to New York to cook in Le Bernadin, the restaurant of chef Eric Ripert. Eric is her friend and a fellow Buddhist. He met her when traveling in Korea to learn more about Buddhism and Buddhist cooking there, and became so enthralled by her cooking and her spirit that he had to invite her to cook at his restaurant.
For me, the best part of this episode was watching Jeong Kwan, a person who has this obvious inner spiritual force, go about her day-to-day activities in the temple. Her garden is beautiful. And she is serene and placid and compassionate and calm.
All things which I sometimes feel I’m not.
From an outsider’s standpoint, I’ve always been attracted to Buddhism. There’s something beautiful about it and the practices it involves, from meditation to prayer to clean eating. But I don’t think I’d make a very good Buddhist. For one, I can’t meditate. It amazes me endlessly that people can sit still for hours, doing nothing. The most I’ve ever managed is five minutes, and even then my brain just about fills to the limit with possibilities of what to do next. Meditation might be good for me. Maybe someday I’ll find someone to teach me how it’s done. For now, I’ll write about it.
Jeong Kwan creates these simple, simple meals. She uses fresh vegetables. No meat or dairy. But plenty of umami — umami from mushrooms, from soy sauce, from sesame oil… Even I, an ardent meateater, will readily admit that her food looks delicious. I can even imagine some of it, given that I’m used to Korean food. My mother and my Korean grandmother make it all the time. But Jeong Kwan’s food doesn’t contain garlic. Or scallions or leeks or onions. A lot of these ingredients, which according to Buddhist philosophy feed the kind of “dynamic energy” a monk doesn’t want to have too much of, lie at the base of Korean cuisine.
Jeong Kwan makes kimchi, though. And she makes a beautiful lotus blossom tea, which resembles enlightenment itself.
Since her visits to New York, Jeong Kwan has continued her peaceful existence at the Chunjinam Hermitage. She has no ego. She cooks from her heart. These things shine through. At the end of the episode, she thanks viewers, first in Korean and then in English. Really, I thought, we should be the ones thanking her.
Learn more about Jeong Kwan in this New York Times article.