«The Most Valuable Ingredient Is Time»

Korean Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan introduces her temple cuisine to guests of Asia Society Switzerland

2019 started for Asia Society Switzerland with a highlight. On January 19, Korean Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan introduced her temple cuisine to excited guests at Restaurant Bellavista in Zurich. After appearing in an episode of Netflix’ «Chef’s Table», her distinct way of cooking brought her to famous restaurants and food fairs all over the world. It was high time to let her cook in Switzerland.

There are a lot of preconceptions when it comes to the workings of a kitchen, not least since Anthony Bourdain’s famous piece in the «New Yorker». Rough manners and language, plates and pans being thrown around, a general contempt for customers, all a direct result of the huge pressure the culinary industry faces on a daily basis. These prejudices cannot be further from the truth when it comes to Jeong Kwan and her kitchen staff. When entering Jeong Kwan’s realm hours before the guests arrive, you certainly see hustle and bustle, hear a lot of communication and stand in the way without noticing it. But then again, everything is conducted in a very deliberate and cautious way with the Korean nun being like an experienced conductor who gives orders in the most subtle ways.
A strict hierarchy certainly exists. Jeong Kwan tastes every meal personally, followed by instructions to improve it when necessary. Every plate must look alike, according to clear guidelines and specifications. But once those details have been made clear on a template plate, Jeong Kwan focuses on observing her crew, giving input only sporadically while resting on a high chair. It then becomes clear what she means when she says that cooking is like meditation to her. The shiitake-mushrooms, braised in barley syrup, the tofu, garnished with wild pepper, and the kimchi, aged more than a year, are then prepared by the staff of eight people accompanying her, consisting of chefs, food bloggers, and tea experts.
The meal itself, entirely vegan and without any bulbous plants, is composed of over fifteen different dishes, served in four rounds. With each course, the tastes and flavours get more intense: While the rice cake soup is captivating due to its simplicity, the mélange with persimmon, cucumber and chili paste intricately connects sweet and sour. The food is accompanied solely by water and chilled lotus blossom tea, which does not distort the flavours. A lot of the ingredients are fermented and Jeong Kwan uses soy sauce that has aged over 20 years, «the most valuable ingredient is time», she says.
A temple dinner does not stuff you, it makes you feel pleasantly saturated and cool-headed. Perfect for meditation – or facing hectic life in busy Zurich.