The South Korean chefs are redefining the art of pastry

Their boundary-blurring desserts reflect their Korean background and French training

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At Lysée, her pastry shop in Manhattan, Mrs. Leecarefully constructs tarts with pears maceratedin the Korean citron yuja and the Koreancinnamon tea sujeonggwa. — Rachel Vanni/The New York Times
At Lysée, her pastry shop in Manhattan, Mrs. Leecarefully constructs tarts with pears maceratedin the Korean citron yuja and the Koreancinnamon tea sujeonggwa. — Rachel Vanni/The New York Times

By Elyse Inamine

Published: Fri 5 May 2023, 9:53 PM

Last updated: Fri 5 May 2023, 9:54 PM

At the Park Hyatt hotel in Paris, Narae Kim combines the Nashi pear she grew up eating in Dangjin, South Korea, and the Williams pear often used in eau de vie into an eye-catching dessert: a fan of Williams wedges, some marinated in jasmine tea and others cooked in bergamot oil, alongside quenelles of pear-and-cassava sorbet, all topped with tiny orbs of Nashi pear liqueur.

Kim had wanted to study pastry in France since she was young, taking pastry and baking classes in middle school and participating in gruelling pastry competitions in college in South Korea.

When Kim brainstorms desserts, she always begins with fruits like apricots, melons and cherries, which she would pluck from her family’s yard as a child, and builds on her ideas using the French pastry skills she has developed throughout her career.

“I don’t think about creating something with a Korean touch,” she said. “It comes naturally.”

Kim, 33, is just one of several chefs born in South Korea who sought out French culinary training but, in the process, have created a distinct genre of pastry. While their paths differ, their work is defining a growing category of pastry art that is confined neither to South Korea nor to France. It is generating long lines, earning Michelin stars and wielding influence across the pastry world.

These chefs shape barely sweet, pillowy corn mousse into cartoonish cobs, and layer pine-nut praline into minimalist Mont Blanc. They season madeleines with soy sauce and chubby financiers with sweet potato.

Their pastries are unlike what customers can find at Tous Les Jours or Paris Baguette, the two beloved South Korean bakery chains that introduced locals to hot-dog-filled rolls, airy cream buns and other uniquely French-Asian creations. Still, those bakeries were the entry point to the world of French pastry for some of the chefs taking that fusion further.

Enjoying one of those baked goods was as much of a Sunday ritual for Erica Abe as going to church in Seoul as a girl. After services, her mother would take her and her brother to pick out a treat at a nearby Paris Baguette.

“I think it was my first memory of liking pastry,” said Abe, 37, the first Asian pastry chef of Benu, the renowned tasting-menu restaurant in San Francisco.

After learning about pastry chefs on TV as a teenager, Eunji Lee presented her parents with a 10-year plan to study in France that ended with becoming “one of the best pastry chefs in the world.” She convinced them, but to understand French culinary technique, Lee needed to understand French.

She picked up French cookbooks to familiarise herself with terminology before moving to Rouen to focus on baking at the Institut National de la Boulangerie Pâtisserie and on pastry at Ferrandi Paris.

“Since my French wasn’t 100 per cent perfect, if I wanted to follow the class and everything, I needed to study more than others,” said Lee, 35.

She began experimenting with Korean ingredients like sesame oil and red bean paste while working at Ze Kitchen Galerie and Le Meurice in Paris. But she didn’t fully develop her pastry point of view until she was hired at the New York City outpost of Jungsik, the innovative Korean fine-dining restaurant.

There, she made her own version of the Paris-Brest with brown rice cream puffs and pecan praline, which she cheekily called the N.Y.-Seoul.

Lee has since honed her style at Lysée, the pastry shop she opened with her husband, the chef Matthieu Lobry, nearly a year ago in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. Inside, you’ll find that emoji-like corn mousse; the Lysée, her signature brown rice mousse cake, which looks like a mid-century Polly Pocket piece; and a fervour for each (the shop sets a limit of one corn mousse per reservation).

Bomee Ki, who is from Gwangju, South Korea, studied pastry at the Le Cordon Bleu in London for a strategic reason: She understood English, not French.

Visa issues, a common obstacle for international chefs, took her back to South Korea. She started a family with her husband, the chef Woongchul Park, and for a moment, considered leaving the stress of restaurant life. But she never forgot her pastry dreams.

After nearly a year of waiting for an entrepreneur visa, she and Park returned to London to open Sollip, which received a Michelin star last year. Her pain perdu looks more like a lava rock than French toast: crisp tuiles of seoritae, the nutty black soybeans, overlap to form a peak above a textural heap of seoritae ice cream, caramelised pecans and vanilla-soaked brioche.

“We are trying to make our food based on French food, but we are Korean,” said Ki, 35. “We’re used to having Korean food, and we’re used to learning from Korean moms. This is in our mind. Naturally this will come into our food. That makes our food and our place very special.”

Other pastry chefs, like Yona Son, had to pursue French training in less conventional ways. After graduating from culinary art programmes in Busan, South Korea, where she grew up, and in New York City, Son purchased about 50 American and French cookbooks on cookies, cakes, bread and professional pastry, and watched famed pastry chefs like Cédric Grolet and Amaury Guichon at work on YouTube.

Neither quite prepared her for a 7 1/2-year tenure at Jungsik in New York and Seoul.

“Because Jungsik is the first fine dining in Korea, there’s no example of any modern Korean dessert,” Son said, adding, “I had to create everything from the base since I had no examples.”

At her bakery in Seoul, Patisserie Armoni, she flavours financiers with sweet potato, black sesame and bean rice cake, and hallabong, the Korean tangerine. She swipes her delicate sand cookies with ganache made from stir-fried soybean paste and caramel.

“Armoni is like ‘harmony’ with a French accent,” said Son, 33. “I wanted to explain the Korean stuff and European or American dessert stuff and get them into harmony.”

For chefs born outside the United States who are entering the insular world of American fine dining, a sense of community is critical. Abe had long admired Corey Lee, the chef of Benu.

“I felt some kind of kinship,” Abe said. “He was Korean American just like myself, and he immigrated to America at a young age. He was so successful at what he did and I looked to him as a role model.”

She follows the menu’s Korean reference points for her desserts, filling the flower-shaped hwagwaja, a traditional Korean cake made of white bean and rice, with a walnut praline and preserved persimmon, and creating an adult version of the Korean snack cake called Choco Pie with cognac, vanilla ice cream and a whole-wheat dacquoise.

“It’s the first time in my career where I feel proud to be representing Korean cuisine in such a high level,” Abe said.

In the West, where traditional Korean ingredients, techniques and desserts are not bound by the same cultural expectations, this style of pastry has been well received. But back in South Korea, it can be more of an adjustment for pastry chefs and customers.

Patisserie Jaein in Seoul isn’t just for grab-and-go treats or a convenient meeting spot for friends, as is common in densely populated cities throughout Asia. Jae In Lee, the pastry chef, refuses to sell coffee, and slips Korean ingredients like woodsy burdock and soy sauce into otherwise traditional French goods like mille-feuille and madeleines.

“Negative feedback always exists,” said Lee, 35. “‘Not as tasty as expected, too sweet, unkind, don’t sell coffee, et cetera.’ We turn negative feedback into good feedback as we perfect our style.”

For Son, of Patisserie Armoni, it’s been challenging to appeal to prospective customers who wander into her Seoul bakery. “They only think doenjang is with soup or sauces, but it can be with chocolate,” she said.

Still, she pushes forward, building on what she and like-minded pastry chefs from South Korea have set in motion.

“I want to make something not in the world.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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