This review appears in the first quarter issue of the Korean Quarterly
Whether you enjoy 2007’s Le Grand Chef (Sik-gaek) will depend on how intense you like your drama flavored – if you prefer a delicate selection of complementary flavors that will pleasantly pass your palate, you’re in luck. If you’re looking for something a little spicier or complex, you may wish that the director had added little more, like the plot equivalent of red pepper paste and garlic, to the plot. However, if you’re the flexible type, open to whatever is served (provided it’s obvious that loving care was taken in its preparation), chances are you’ll be happy to spend time with the world portrayed within the movie.
Le Grand Chef is an adaptation of a popular manhwa with the same name. The screenplay was the collaborative effort of Sin Dong-ik and the movie’s director, Jeon Yoon-soo. The most tempting is the care and attention paid to the food. The broad spectrum of traditional Korean cuisine is the star of the show – so much so that it should truly have been titled, “Le Grand Cuisine.” From start to finish, one plate following another, tempting morsels fill the eye, even if sadly it is impossible to fill our stomachs! There is a celebration of simple and honest ingredients; choosing the freshest of vegetables, cooking what is in season, and taking the care to prepare things at the pace required by the food, not by any other clock. The scenes of food preparation during the competition sequences are colorful, rich, and varied, with particular emphasis on creating beautiful and sumptuous dishes. Each dish is a work of art. But it’s not all about the elaborate and labor intensive: there’s even a lesson on how to make the best ramyun – eat it when you’re really hungry!
The attractive Kim Kang-woo as Seong-chan, the young chef with a reputation to clear and prize to win brings a boyish simplicity to the film, and his earnest pursuit of simple and true cuisine is very appealing. Lee Ha-na as Jin-soo, the reporter who lends Seong-chan moral support and a friendly smile, provide a charming, albeit low-key couple. Im Won-hee as Bong-joo, the jealous competitor who believes that the competition is his to win at whatever price is sufficiently unpleasant for you to root against him immediately. Jeong Eun-pyo, Kim Sang-ho, Jeong Jin, and veteran actor Kim Jin-tae round out the main cast.
The film opens with an important competition: a contest of skill to see who will inherit the mantle of head chef at a prestigious traditional restaurant. Seong-chan, who came to the restaurant as an apprentice years earlier, has a natural affinity for cooking and poses the greatest threat to Bong-joo, son of the current chef. The challenge is to prepare a special meal: the key ingredient is golden blowfish, a type of puffer fish that is known for being poisonous if improperly prepared. Both young men create visual works of art, yet mysteriously the judges fall ill after eating Seong-chan’s offering. Okay, maybe it’s not really mysterious how such a thing happened. You’ll immediately have your suspicions, thanks to the smug look on Bong-joo’s face. But however it comes about, Seong-chan’s career as a chef is in tatters and he retreats to the country and leaves the world of cooking in disgrace.
Over the next five years he lives a pastoral life, taking care of an increasingly senile grandfather, selling vegetables in the market, and raising a cow, lavishing care upon it as if it were a member of his family. He’s discovered a calm, ordered existence – the world of slow food, nature, and harmony and he’s content to live his life in this manner. You could say that his life has been put “on the back burner,” but this is all due to change.
A priceless artifact is being returned to Korea by a Japanese citizen whose ancestor was a government official during the late Chosun dynasty. It is the knife that belonged to the King’s head chef, such a fervent patriot that, when ordered to prepare food for the Japanese chose to cut off his hand, leaving a telltale notch in the blade. The knife will be the prize in the grandest of cooking competitions – a search for the chef who can best capture the true essence of native Korean cuisine.
Of course, Bong-joo, now the prosperous owner/chef of the famous restaurant feels that he’s the rightful heir to this prize but he knows that Seong-chan is out there, a serious threat to the throne. It turns out that someone else, an editor who’s met Seong-chan and shared meals with him, is thinking of shaking the young man free from his self-imposed exile. He sets out with Jin-soo, a feisty young reporter, to visit Seong-chan and begin the groundwork to get him entered into the competition. He leaves Jin-soo to persuade the recalcitrant chef and she is ably up to the task.
The competition engaged, there are a series of cooking battles as the field is narrowed down across the country. Soon it is a showdown between Seong-chan and Bong-joo. There are a number of side plots involving the various people who will come to the aid of Seong-chan in his mission, some with more impact than others. There is also a subtle side plot concerning the identity of an assistant chef who may have poisoned that head chef to the king – almost too subtle. If you are not paying close attention, you will miss the gist of the story, though if you do, it will not affect the flavor of the movie in general.
With a formula movie of this nature, the outcome is sure to be rightfully pleasant, even if it will not be a great surprise. There are a number of gently heartwarming moments, even one to provoke a tear or two, even if you’re not stomping your feet and cheering with emotion at the end. The relationship between Seong-chan and Jin-soo is virtually a non-issue, yet you know that there’s a future relationship there, if only by the way they once again “meet cute” in the final scene. There’s not a lot of heat between the two characters, but there is a sense of companionship, and a natural ease between them.
I think that Kim Kang-woo could have brought a greater sense of passion for cooking to his role, if not while he was rusticating, then certainly once he’d joined into the competitive fray. And while I could also wish to have been a little more surprised with certain plot elements, I still enjoyed Le Grand Chef quite a bit and it held up quite well to a second viewing. So, with reservations (make yours at your favorite Korean restaurant for a time immediately following the screening of the movie), this movie is a gentle and quietly delightful gem.
Note: The food preparation sequences in this movie may make it difficult viewing for many animal lovers or the generally squeamish. Be advised! The love story is entirely G-rated.