Kiejo Sarsfield tells how a housewife from Masan ended up supervising dinner for 60 in a Cambridge college.
In March I had e-mail from Dr Michael Shin, Lecturer in Korea Studies and fellow at Robinson College Cambridge, about a Korean food event he was planning to organise in a couple of months. He was asking me whether I would be interested in teaching the college chefs and cooking with them for 60 invited guests at Korean food event.
Well, well, I was delighted and very surprised at the same time: how did he know my name? I do not have a web site and don’t advertise in any form. Did he read my blog?1
Anyway, one thing I had to tell him first. I emailed him that I am not a qualified chef: I teach Korean home cooking, not restaurant food. Did he know that?
He said he would still like to work with me, even though he had not tasted my food or even met me. I decided to have a go with a brave smile, encouraged by his a hugely risk-taking decision.
I met with the college head chef and his catering team on 11 April, and discussed the menu. Dr Shin and I had previously spoken via email, and I had proposed a menu based on this discussion. We agreed to put two iconic Korean foods – Bulgogi and Kimchi – on the table, and I offered to bring my own home-made kimchi as my contribution.
D Day was 1st May!!
Gary, the head chef, had been looking at bulgogi recipes on the internet, but he said he could not understand some aspects of the recipes. Luckily I had prepared my own recipes, and we made a decision: three cooked dishes and three salads, including my own home made baechu kimchi. And of course we had to consider a vegetarian option as well.
The college kitchen is huge, with around 20 kitchen staff working. I was given a corner to work in, and a dedicated chef, Stewart, was with me all the time. He will learn from me and put Korean dishes on their menu for students and conferences.
I arrived in the kitchens as planned at 11:00 am, and cooked with chef Stewart preparing some food to have a preliminary tasting with Dr Shin.
And the menu for the evening was as follows:
Robinson College Cambridge Korean Food Event 1st May 2013
1. Bulgogi with lettuce and ssamjang / slow cooked tofu and bean paste stew (vegetarian)
2. Spicy Squid with vegetables / various vegetables, fried tofu with spicy sauce
3. Seafood pancake with dipping sauce / spring onion and shitake mushroom pancake.
1. My own home made kimchi
2. Cucumber salad, Korean style
3. Red cabbage, pear, apple, mooli carrot salad with lemon & sesame oil dressing
Steamed Korean rice
Fruit salad, cinnamon punch and sikhye (rice punch)
By 12:00 noon we had made all the trial dishes and Dr Shin seemed satisfied with the results. It was not easy to marinade 14kg of beef. I had to spread the meat on a huge roasting tin and pour over the marinating sauce. I truly lost sense of quantity. I just hoped for the best.
The chefs were shouting all the time to me, “Is it OK chef??? What to do next chef? Shall I add this and that chef?”
I had to get use to this — them calling me CHEF! — and answer quickly. Now I understood why they shout chef, chef! in a professional kitchen. Really, I felt I was commanding a ship.
I must say that all the college staff and chefs were so welcoming to me in their kitchen and all very appreciative and willing to help. The chefs were so eager to learn new recipes, and it was a such joy working with them. Most of all, they loved the flavour of Korean food.
Finally all the hungry students and academic staff arrived, and I had to give a 3-minute speech about the food we had cooked. It was a scary moment.
All day I had been carried along by my nervous energy and excitement, but I could not eat or drink.
The guests especially loved my kimchi and bulgogi. I had made a fresh kimchi and a slightly fermented one, which is my favourite. When a good kimchi is fermented you get a sparkling taste, like a fizzy drink.
In true Korean fashion, I made a few boxes of food (kimchi, and uncooked bulgogi) for the professors and students to take away.
It was a successful event, and I was hugely relieved to have got it over with — and so satisfied to hear that all the chefs were impressed by Korean flavours and how different they are from other cuisines. Most of all, they loved the food!!
I was supposed to spend night at the college but I came home, taking a late train back to London and home to unwind, putting my feet up with a large drink in my hand.
Dr Shin and I talked about the globalisation of Korean food, which is one of the Korean government’s initiatives, but they seemed to be promoting so-called Royal court recipes from the Joseon dynasty. We agreed that this was a wrong decision: first of all nobody makes this kind of showy food at home or in a restaurant, so how could ordinary people from a foreign country appreciate this old-fashioned, stuffy food in this modern fast moving world? We failed comprehend the decision. Who knows???
Dr Shin thinks for a good place to start with globalising Korean food and culture is at university. I totally agree with this, because the students are our future.
Thinking back, I could have done better. I now know how I could do better next time (if there is a next time). I was very emotional, I but learned a lot. Certainly it was one of the greatest experiences I ever had in my cooking career (if I can call it a career, as opposed to a hobby).
I do feel so proud, knowing that Dr Shin and I, in a small way, had made history: the very first time I had made Korean food (my own recipe! nothing can be better than this) at Cambridge, and they will it put on the menu in future — it feels so good!!
I came truly a long way from Masan (my home town, south east Korea) to Cambridge !!
This article originally appeared on Kiejo’s blog – A Taste of Korea / Chilli & Lettuce / Mostly Korean – and is reproduced here with her permission. Contect [email protected] for details of her cookery classes (or to hire her for your next banquet). All photos are courtesy of and © Kiejo except the one of Robinson College gardens, which is © www.robinson.cam.ac.uk
- I think it might be LKL’s monthly events list which includes your cookery classes, distributed every month to members of the British Association of Korean Studies, of which Dr Shin is Treasurer! – Ed