How did you start cooking?
When I enlisted in the Korean People’s Army at 18, they took me to the Pyeongyang Okryugwan where I trained for four months. Then I was assigned to the Jangsung-geup Restaurant (a restaurant exclusively for army generals), where I cooked for 11 years. I think they took me to Okryugwan because my grandfather was a cook. But I hadn’t even dreamed of cooking. I thought it was embarrassing for a man to cook.
When did you come to South Korea?
I first came in 1998. For 10 years the luxury I saw in the military gave me high hopes about society but I was disappointed. You couldn’t survive without stealing. So I went to China to earn money, where people were jealous of South Korea. I didn’t even know what South Korea was, let alone know that it was so wealthy; I had only heard of corruption and decay. I made up my mind to go to South Korea myself after hearing of all the riches available there.
Did you start cooking again right when you got to South Korea?
No, I was too embarrassed. But I soon realized I only knew how to cook. I went to one restaurant where I didn’t say I was a cook but that I just wanted to learn. But I couldn’t cook there. They used too much artificial seasoning, ruining the taste of the ingredients. The cooking of my people used a little seasoning to make the ingredient shine and I thought this new way of cooking would make me forget the tastes of home. So three years ago I started teaching classes at Hoyacooks Cooking Studio and now this.
Is it fair to say the food at Dongmu Bapsang is the same as the one in North Korea?
Exactly the same. One ingredient I wish I had is the ground elder plant fruit, which is used in high-end meat dishes.
How do you want people to think of North Korean food?
Aside from food, I want to think that the people coming to our restaurant are coming not just for North Korean flavors but also for reunification. In any case, the customers are here because they’re interested in North Korea. By eating here, they are bringing the Koreas one step closer to reunification. People are brought closer through food and I believe eating here is representative of Korean reunification.