«I Form a Loaf, Wrap It in Rice Straws and Let It Hang in a Room to Ferment, Like You Would Do With a Ham.»
Buddhist nun and chef Jeong Kwan meets Rebecca Clopaths's alpine cuisine
The buddhist nun and chef Jeong Kwan spent some busy days in Switzerland. In a small mountainous village she met the young chef Rebecca Clopath. On 1600 m altitude they talked about soy sauce, their mothers, and menu planning.
By Serena Jung
Photographs by André Hengst.
It probably has to do with being once urged to bow in front of a three-meter high golden statue of the founder of a Buddhist sect, somewhere in the heartland mountains in South Korea, that Buddhism feels a bit suspicious to me. It very likely also has to do with understanding neither the religion and its practices very well nor the language. And it certainly has to do with the huge gap between the rather western image of Buddhism that is verging into a new age-yoga-cash cow that I oftentimes find tasteless, and the different forms of militant Buddhism that sometimes even collude with nationalism, leading to violent frictions of which Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis is only the latest occurrence.
That unease was facing my unquestioned admiration for Jeong Kwan. Since I have seen her and her garden in the episode of «Chef’s Table», I have read many articles on her. As a food lover and an avid consumer of culinary shows for quite some time now, I barely could believe she would come to Switzerland and that I would meet her. Right before she actually arrived, after a good six months of planning – and misplanning as a rookie gastronomer –, I was starting to get nervous, wondering how she would be. And how I would be, meeting her. After six days with her this much is clear, she certainly leaves an impression, that is to say: a smile on everyone’s face she meets.
When planning a program with Jeong Kwan we wanted her to encounter and work with another chef, who might think and act similarly – less in respect of what ingredients they use but in how they treat them. And we immediately thought of Rebecca Clopath, a young chef, that turned her back on the bustling world of gourmet restaurants competing for stars and accolades and moved back to her parents farm, taking over the small café on the ground floor, serving the «taste of the alps», as she calls it. Luckily, she was very open to the idea of meeting Jeong Kwan and her way of cooking and living. What interested us most, was to find out how much connects them through their environments which are physically and ritually very far apart, and still somehow feel familiar. So, we arranged a visit to Lohn, a small village, at 1600 meters altitude, with less than 50 residents, and home to Rebecca’s farm.
In the two days leading up to our visit in mid-January, Lohn has seen a meter of snow covering its streets, houses and the two fire pits Rebecca usually likes to cook on in front of her house. For Jeong Kwan and her Korean entourage the short walk from the bus station to the farm holds a lot more than just one photo opportunity. On the way, Rebecca explains that the local farmers decided altogether to start producing their crop strictly organic in 1992 – a time when organic was not yet a thing. Rebecca’s parents are running the farm for 25 years now – their names, Wilma and Christian, are written on the outside of the barn. The entrance is framed with many plaques awarding Christian’s abilities in breeding cattle. After a short tour through the barn, greeting the cows and the calves, Rebecca starts serving a vast number of dishes, all of them adjusted to Jeong Kwan’s diet. «Cooking locally, it is quite a challenge for me to not use milk, or meat, or onions to build flavor», Rebecca explains, «culturally, regarding what we manage to grow up here, it is hard to omit these ingredients.»
I ask Jeong Kwan if the region reminds her of her own home at Baekyangsa? «The temple», she answers, «is located at a height of only 400 m altitude, nevertheless, it gets very cold in Winter, around minus 12°C, and very hot in summer. Now there is snow too, waist-high», Jeong Kwan adds, who is barely 1.5 m tall, «but there has never been as much snow as it has here.» She examines all the dishes that make their rounds from hand to hand really closely, turns plates and bowls, puts them on the table to take a picture, rearranges the plates, and tastes everything silently. Then she turns to the translator Mrs. Seelmann to have her explain every dish again while handing her, the senior, another slice of pear and another piece of bread.
Almost timidly Rebecca announces: «I am learning how to make my own soy sauce. A friend is teaching me, he is from a close mountainous region – officially it lays beyond the Swiss border in Austria, but geographically we are from the same place.» Jeong Kwan asks for a sample of the one-year old soy sauce and will not stop tasting it throughout the afternoon. She even wants it to stay with her as her empty desert plate is cleared. As Rebecca explains the way she learnt about the process Jeong Kwan nods and explains: «Our beginnings are the same: I cook the beans and pound them. But before I add water, I form a loaf, wrap it in rice straws and let it hang in a room to ferment, like you would do with a ham.» For two to three months Jeong Kwan lets the bacteria, partially coming from the straws, develop themselves and do their work. Only then comes salt and water that turns into brine and later into soy sauce. The remaining paste is being mashed and used as Deonjang, a seasoning for soups or sauces, similar to Japanese Miso.
The soy sauce needs to be stored first, since it loses the dominant taste of salt only over time. In big clay pots that allow air to permeate its walls, the water slowly evaporates and the sauce becomes milder, more sweet and viscous. Jeong Kwan has various vintages and usually, older sauces are being blended with younger ones in order to prevent the sauces to evaporate completely. She has one sauce though that has never been poured on with younger ones in over 21 years. And like with wine it goes: the crop makes the sauce, depending heavily on the quality of the beans that can be too hard, the quality of the salt and the weather during all stages of the process.
Jeong Kwan wonders what prompted the young chef to move back to her childhood home, a rather remote place. «The produce and where it comes from», Rebecca answers. Born in 1988, she has been recognized early as an outstanding talent, winning awards, working in renowned gourmet restaurants, and graduating as a head chef. But her upbringing made her question her work and its environment that does not treat ingredients with the care they deserve: «Growing up on a farm, I know how much work goes into everything that is being cultivated and produced.» When she first left home at the age of 16 to be trained as a chef, she felt like she had to compensate, Rebecca adds. It took her two years to realize how gruesome all these artificial drinks and all the processed food were and that she really wanted to know where all the ingredients used are coming from. «It is a choice. And you have to actively make it», she describes her way of cooking and eating ever since.
«In this tiny place» Rebecca says, «we can realize an ideal: I am directly involved in all the decisions from the very beginning, how the crop and cattle are being brought up, until the end when I stand in front of the guests. This enables me to take them through all the steps that went into the food in front of them. That can be strenuous at times, but it is well worth it.» For this ideal, Rebecca was lucky enough to meet a young couple, Dominik and Leonie, who themselves were on a similar journey as her. Both designers by training they had just moved out of the city to Andeer, a neighboring village to Lohn, when they had read about Rebecca and her mother’s garden in a magazine. Dominik had already started his training to become an agriculturist himself back then. One day, they came to admire Wilma’s garden and got talking. Later they came back to meet Rebecca, and now they slowly grow into a trio taking over the «Lichthof» from the elder generation: Dominik takes care of the animals, the two woolly pigs, an indigenous breed, and the cattle. Leonie takes over the garden and is set out to establish a permaculture, growing the vegetables and berries that the surrounding nature does not provide. Additionally, she pursues high gardening, growing potatoes up on 1900 m altitude. And, she supports Rebecca, who runs the kitchen of the café that seat 12 people only and serves solely produce that grows on the farm, going full circle, or really close by. The restaurant is open twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Twice a year Rebecca serves a nine-course menu for 20 days straight, always focusing on a specific topic. Her latest theme was «Flora Helvetica», where every dish was dedicated to a local flower.
The two women find similarities in their vitas: Jeong Kwan entered the temple and took on the name she is known for when she was 17, only a year older than Rebecca was when she moved out of her parent’s home. «The place where I received my training as a chef, it felt kind of like a monastery to me», Rebecca laughs. Their love for food, and with it the respect for the ingredients, they owe to their mothers, both dedicated cooks and farmers. Jeong Kwan remembers eating directly from the vegetable beds as a child, and how her mother loved to have a lot of people over for a meal.
While the wind blows snow against the windows at an increasingly higher rate, Rebecca is in the kitchen seasoning the pumpkin soup to taste, and Jeong Kwan keeps going for the mustard, the bread and the pears, tasting small bits of everything over and over, taking pictures. And she is processing what she has heard about the Lichthof, thinking of adapting some of it to her own habitat. Since so many people and journalists are seeking to visit her at her house in her small kitchen, oftentimes she has trouble finding a spot for herself to sleep. Most recently therefore the temple decided to grant some money for the construction of a new building right below the one Jeong Kwan is living in. And maybe, she says, for this new place it could be a good idea to create a menu that could stay on for 20 days.
Back from the mountains less snow and less coziness await Jeong Kwan. The media attention alone takes up a good time of the remaining days in Zurich, before she will run another event at restaurant Teufelhof in Basel. In Zurich, she needs to prepare and shop for a series of events: A traditional temple dinner and a tea ceremony at Museum Rietberg, and a temple style dinner with us, Asia Society Switzerland. A lot of coordination is left to do, also with her team and with us – who have tried to organize as much as possible, when most of our questions we sent beforehand were answered by: «There is much time left, we will decide on that later.» The cultural translations – one has to be a little more open when making plans with people from Korea – did not help in the months leading up to our event. But when Jeong Kwan was here, and we still did not know what plates, bowls and cups she would be using, let alone, what dishes she would cook three days before the dinner, I was way past worried: It would all work out somehow. We would all be okay.
What I did not understand when going into this project last Summer was how important – to put it technically – immediate access is for chefs like Jeong Kwan or Rebecca Clopath. What connects them contrary to geography and spiritual setting is: their cooking is part of a story – and they want to be able to tell it right, from beginning to the end. All the photographs of the room and the tableware (with detailed measurements and a ruler lying next to it for reference) were well-intentioned but did not help Jeong Kwan much to assess from a distance, what she would end up using. It took three hours at Bellavista, the restaurant we were working with for the dinner, her entourage of eight, the restaurant’s head chef, and the translator to decide where they would set up their main work station, how many rounds of food there would be, and, yes, what plates and bowls would be used. It then took another 24 hours – although we were present when it was decided – until that information got to us, and subsequently to the restaurant and the caterer, where we were renting additional gear. But hey, it would all work out somehow. We would all be okay.
And we were: In four rounds more than 20 different dishes to a public of 84 guests were served; new textures and ingredients were introduced; servers had trouble finding a spot for the new dishes on the tables; strangers were exchanging their experiences with Korean food; and from time to time Jeong Kwan was wandering the room, touching shoulders, pointing at dishes and more affecting the people than explaining the effects of the food: spreading – or harvesting? – smiles all around. Then she takes Rebecca, who just made it on time to the dinner after ending her Saturday shift, by the hand leading her to the kitchen and handing her a small bottle: the 22-year-old soy sauce she brought with her from Korea.
Back in Lohn, Jeong Kwan said: «The interest for eating and living well comes and goes over time like waves. It has always been like that. But it has to start in the mind.» And then she explained the emphasis on encounters in Buddhism: «People who live at the same time can meet, learn from each other and gain new experiences and insights. But if you never come across new perspectives you can also not change.» For me, after six days with Jeong Kwan, I still am not too much into Buddhism or any other spiritual framework – but who knows what will grow from that encounter. Rebecca is thinking on accepting Jeong Kwan’s invitation to visit her at the temple: «I find her approach to life and the world just really beautiful and can recognize a deeper meaning in it.»