The most breathtaking episode of Chef’s Table to date focuses on cooking as a form of communication. Jeong Kwan is a 60-year-old Zen Buddhist nun who prepares vegan meals for her community (and the occasional visitor) at Baekyangsa Temple, which is located 169 miles south of Seoul. Chef Eric Ripert and writer Jeff Gordinier can attest to the fact that her food is delicious, but it also has a greater purpose beyond being a satisfying form of nourishment. Here are some takeaways from this stunning installment of David Gelb’s Netflix documentary series, Chef’s Table:
• The episode starts with some dreamy footage of the forest and the Baekyangsa Temple, while Jeong Kwan explains how she approaches food and cooking: “With food we can share and communicate our emotions. It’s that mindset of sharing that is really what you’re eating. There is no difference between cooking and pursuing Buddha’s way.”
• Eric Ripert, sitting in the dining room of Le Bernardin in New York City, says that he met Kwan while traveling through Korea. A devout Buddhist, the chef was curious about visiting a temple and trying the cuisine. Ripert remarks: “She’s extremely compassionate. She’s very advanced in Buddhism, and she happens to be a great cook... Jeong Kwan is very spontaneous in her cooking. At the same time she keeps a certain tradition, but she breaks a lot of rules and that makes her very exceptional as a chef, as a cook.”
• Ripert later invited Kwan to New York, to cook lunch for a group of journalists. Jeff Gordinier describes the meal: “You would look at these plates, and they could easily have passed for plates served at Noma, at Benu in San Francisco, at Blanca in Brooklyn. Without a link, you could’ve served them at those restaurants, and people would’ve marveled at how beautiful and delicious these dishes were... This was as good as any meal you could get from any chef on the planet.“
• Kwan explains the big difference between temple cuisine and everything else: “Secular food is focused on creating dynamic energy. But temple food keeps a person’s mind calm and static.” To keep that balance, Kwan does not cook with garlic, onions, scallions, chives, or leeks. She notes: “Those five spices are sources of spiritual energy, but too much of that energy will prevent a monk’s spirit from achieving a state of calmness. This is a distraction to meditation.”
• Jeong Kwan’s love of food started at a young age, when she was living on a small farm with her large family. She made noodles one day while her parents were out working, and this impressed her mother, who told Kwan: “You will live well one day.”
• Kwan’s mother died when she was 17. Kwan explains: “I was deeply upset when she died so early. And I realized there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t give my children the same kind of pain someday. I vowed never to pass down that pain... One day, I just disappeared without telling anyone. I didn’t take anything with me. I just decided to be a monk.”
• The monks at the temple accepted her into the fold, but it wasn’t easy for Kwan to adjust to life at Baekyangsa at first, especially because she had trouble getting up early for prayer. The elders made some initial adjustments to the schedule to make her more comfortable, and she’s lived there ever since. Kwan notes: “My mother granted me the opportunity to enter this temple. Even today, I thank her for her mercifulness and her compassion for allowing my pursuit of the freedom.“
• Kwan occasionally leaves the temple to teach at a nearby university. “I teach because I want the world to be united through healthy and happy food and to thrive together,” she says.
• Kwan believes that soy sauce is an essential ingredient, for many reasons:
Soy sauce makes me exited just thinking about it. Every food is recreated by soy sauce. Soy beans, salt and water, in harmony, through time. It is the basis of seasonings, the foundation. There are sauces aged five years, ten years, aged for one hundred years. These kinds of soy sauces are passed down for generations. They are heirlooms.
If you look into yourself, you see past, present, and future. You see that time revolves endlessly. You can see past from the present. By looking into myself, I see my grandmother, my mother, the elders in the temple, and me. As a result, by making soy sauce, I am reliving the wisdom of my ancestors. I am reliving them. It’s not important who or when. What is important is that I’m doing it in the present.
I use soy sauce, and I acknowledge its importance. It is no longer just me that’s doing things. It’s me in the past, in the present, and even in the future. Soy sauce is eternal. It is life itself.
• Eric Ripert says Jeong Kwan “has no ego.” The nun herself has a lot of thoughts on this subject:
Creativity and ego cannot 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 freely move 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. That is my belief.
• When he was nearing 70, Kwan’s father came to live with her at the temple. He complained about the lack of meat to eat, so Kwan cooked him one of her finest dishes, fried shiitake mushrooms, and asked him to take them up on top of a mountain for his meal. When he was finished, her father told her, “This is better than meat.” Kwan’s dad left the temple after a peaceful month. Shortly after returning home, he passed away.
• Kwan reflects on the impact that her parents had on her: “Because of my parents, I could become a monk. And I prayed for them to be happy in the next life. Even today, when I see something beautiful, or make or see beautiful food, I thank my parents for their energy and virtue. The food I prepare is an expression of gratitude to my parents. They let me become who I am.“
• Ripert says that he learned a lot from Kwan, both personally and professionally: “It’s about being in the present, respecting ingredients, the planet, making people happy. How to be happy in the process. How to put good energy into the food. It’s all of that. That is the big change in my life. The is the influence of Jeong Kwan.”
• At the end of the episode, Kwan offers a message to the camera: “I make food as a meditation. I am living my life as a monk with a blissful mind and freedom. I wish you a healthy, happy life. Thank you.”
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