A meditation on Foodhism. Chef Table Season 3’s enlightening story of monk-chef Jeong Kwan

Forget Netflix and Chill, I was in the middle of a  Netflix and Cry session just as my boyfriend walked in on me.

“You ok? What are you watching?” he asked.

Wiping my tear-streaked cheeks and tearing a hole through my Kleenex, I replied, “Chef’s Table, Season 3!” *Sniff*

Indeed, David Gelb, the creator of that favourite docu of global gourmands, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is back with a new season of Chef’s Table – also known as the show that makes me question my life choices and wonder, why am I not traveling the world talking to awesome chefs and tasting their out-of-this-world cuisine? (Maybe in another lifetime.)

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Get thee to a monastery

Chef Table’s new season opens with the fascinating story of Monk-Chef Jeong Kwan, which fuses some of my favourite things in life: Food, Buddhism, nature, Asian culture, and… soy sauce.

Jeong Kwan already discovered her knack for cooking when she was 6 or 7 years old, just from watching her mother cook. In her teens, her father told her that “a woman should be able to make seven dishes with straw. Only then does she deserve a good husband.” She recalls becoming really angry, saying, “I will not look for a husband, I will live in a small shack in the mountains, surrounded by nature. I will live alone!” And so at 17 years old she did run away from home to become a monk at a Buddhist monastery.

And yet that profound life change did not deflect her from a life dedicated to cooking. Her daily preparation of “temple food” was her constant meditation about life and her personal journey towards awakening. “These ingredients awaken your mind,” she explains, “they keep you aware.”

In spite not having any formal training, her food has been lauded by some of the most celebrated chefs like Eric Ripert to be at par with any cuisine offered in some of the Michelin-starred culinary temples around the world. Jeff Gordiner of the New York Times effused, “her food is as good as any meal you could get from any chef on the planet” and could easily pass for plates at NoMa, Benu in San Francisco and Blanca in Brooklyn.

Clearly absent from Jeong Kwon’s repertoire are the fancy carrot foam, liquid pea spheres and edible dessert balloons. But who needs molecular gastronomy – she instinctively employs nature’s own physical and chemical processes to transform the humble vegetables she grows in the monastery’s garden into unforgettable ingredients. Time, for example, is an indispensable element in her cooking style, the passage of which is crucial in the fermentation process to create kimchi. And of course, our beloved soy sauce.

“Soy sauce…(sigh)…soy sauce makes me excited just thinking about it,” she says radiantly. “Every food is recreated by soy sauce. Soy beans, salt and water, in harmony, through time.”

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Philosophy of Foodhism

It’s a moving experience to even just get a glimpse of a person’s life that is so simple and yet so fulfilled if only because every moment is punctuated by passion. It is incredible to see happiness etched indelibly on her face.

Letting go and living fully in the moment is at the core of Buddhist teachings – this is a way of life that I try to uphold. On rare occasions I do feel that living, radiating moment, particularly when I write, or many times, when I am cooking for people I care for. (And ok, I admit, when I’m playing with my two cats.) Anyway, I will bring this little meditation to a close with a reflection on Jeong Kwan’s words about creativity that really struck a bonshō chord:

“Creativity and ego do not 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 move freely 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. “

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