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Eunji Lee: ‘I want to be a good leader, not just a good pastry chef’

July 5, 2019
Eunji Lee: ‘I want to be a good leader, not just a good pastry chef’
Santiago Corral

Opened a decade ago, Jungsik is a fine-dining restaurant in Seoul, run by chef Jung Sik Yim, an alumnus from the acclaimed Culinary Institute of America in New York. Chef Jung Sik Yim, former apprentice at Aquavit and Bouley in NYC, was the first Korean Chef to mix Korean and Western cooking methods and ingredients, delivering neo-Korean dishes with avant-garde presentations. Molecular Korean food is still considered a new thing in Korea and Jungsik takes traditional ingredients and serves them in his own modern way, attracting international diners and food critics.

Jungsik offers a modern and unique understanding of contemporary innovative Korean cuisine. The name of the restaurant is a play of words. In the Korean language, Jung Sik is a formal dinner and it is also the name of the chef. The ambiance is a combination between contemporary and elegance, with gracious and well-trained staff.

The restaurant has been awarded with top culinary recognitions such as Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, Best Excellence award by Wine Spectator, and in 2013 it was awarded two Michelin stars and has maintained them ever since.

Jungsik New York opened in Tribeca in 2011, only two years following the opening of   Jungsik Seoul. The executive chef in New York is Ho Young Kim and the pastry chef is Eunji Lee.

We grow up believing in that dream job, the place we love to go to every day some people say if you put your heart into your dreams, no request is too extreme. If you love what you do, then you don’t have to work for the rest of your life. I love Korean food and I couldn’t miss the chance to meet and interview the head pastry chef of such a prestigious restaurant. This is the incredible success story of Eunji Lee, originally from Busan, South Korea. This talented young pastry chef is one of New York City best pastry chefs.

 

“I really love to work with fresh seasonal fruits because they are the best during their peak season”

 

Eunji Lee wanted to study pastry arts after watching a television show. She was determined to fulfill a lifelong dream of studying pastry arts when she moved to France in 2006. Classically trained at the Institut National de la Boulangerie Patisserie in Rouen and at the Ecole Ferrandi in Paris, Lee spent three years in the acclaimed restaurant, Ze Kitchen Galerie of Chef William Ledeuil and then trained under Chef Alain Ducasse and Pastry Chef Cedric Grolet, at three Michelin-starred Le Meurice.  She also participated in the famous French cooking show “Qui sera le prochain grand pâtissier?, making it to the final. After a decade of living in France, she decided to move to New York to continue with her brilliant career to work as a pastry chef at Jungsik.

Dinning room at the Jungsik New Yoirk
 

What is the most challenging thing when you are at work?

Personally, managing people. making a good team, and creating a nice work environment for them, guiding them to progress.. because I want to be a good leader, not just a good chef.

At work, sometimes it’s hard to put something Korean as a dish. (it’s part of the identity of our restaurant, I can’t make a 100% French dessert for example).

 

 Would you go back to South Korea to pursue a career there?

One day, why not? I want to take my dessert, and also share my philosophy and ideas, my experiences.

 

 What is the next step in your career?

To one day open my personal shop & atelier in the future.

 

What makes you happy when you are at work?

First of all, when I hear good reactions and compliments from guests, and when I see their happy faces and reactions, it makes me very happy.

I want to make people happier while eating my desserts. And also when I see my team in progress, or they are happy to learn and work with me, it makes me proud and happy.

 

“I’m very interested and also inspired often by savory ingredients and also their cooking methods, so I ask lot of questions to our executive chef Hoyoung Kim: how to make a really nice oil or what’s the best herb …”

 

Explain the process of how you come up with new desserts and how involved is the Chef of the restaurant when you create new desserts? and how often do you change your desserts?

For new desserts: mostly by seasonal ingredients. strawberry in spring, stone fruits in summer, fig or pear in the fall, apple or citrus in winter…. I really love to work with fresh seasonal fruits because they are the best during their peak season. So when I decide the main ingredients, I start to think of other supporting ingredients which could be match really well. Then I try to plate it for a nice look and presentation.

The Chef of the restaurant can get involved. We talk a lot and share many ideas when we create new dishes with our executive chef Hoyoung Kim. He definitely knows more than me about savory sides ingredients, for example herbs, peppers, or even some special techniques for cooking. I’m very interested and also inspired often by savory ingredients and also their cooking methods, so I ask a lot of questions to him, how to make a really nice oil or what’s the best herb .. things like that. He has an amazing palate, so he tastes my desserts and sometimes he gives me ideas on how to make it better balanced.

 

If you could improve something in your career what would it be and why?

More chocolate and bread techniques and skills. When we’re working in the restaurant, we don’t have many chances to work with chocolate as an art / showpiece, and bread.

Even though we make bonbons and have some chocolate skills, and breads, but I’d like to have more opportunities to improve deeper and wider.
 

 

“I could improve techniques involving chocolate and bread skills”

 

 Do you miss working in a hotel?

Sometimes, I do miss it, of course. My chefs & team & ambiance… I can say I mostly miss France!  But I love my work & team also in NYC now, so that’s fine! 

 
Banana mimetic dessert

Banana mimetic dessert 

How would you define your passion and inspiration?

I live because of my job & passion for work. I love my job as a pastry chef, and I also have a huge passion for work and food!

During my time off, I’m always visiting pastry or bakery shop and restaurants. I love to eat good things, it makes me happy and relieve stress.

So ‘eating good things’ is my happiness and very important to me, same as people who taste my desserts & sweets. 

So I put all my love into it, I’m always trying & working hard to make better desserts, I love to make people happy.

If I can give them a little happiness while tasting my desserts,  in this hard, survival of the fittest life, I’ll be very happy and that’s my mission succeed. 

Inspiration comes from everywhere. It can be from savory dishes, restaurants, cultures, photos, magazine, supermarkets… all around the world.

 

“I’m always trying & working hard to make better desserts, I love to make people happy”

 

How do you overcome your problems at work?

I think I try to solve them by myself by lot of thinking. But if I can’t , I ask my friends or chefs for help to get some advice.

 
Soy and Sesame
Soy and Sesame

Was it hard to be where you are now? Why?

Being a good pastry chef and a good leader is always my goal and mission! Sometimes it’s easy to make a good dessert but hard to understand people. And sometimes it’s also the opposite! 

If the dish (for new menu) doesn’t come out exactly how I want or imagine, it makes me crazy!

I think as a good leader, my job is also to help and lead, guide them in a good way, and make them progress,  not only making good desserts.

So we need to know that we are all human beings and nobody’s perfect.

 

“What advice would you give younger pastry chefs? Take your spoon and taste everything as much as you can!”

 

What advice would you give younger pastry chef?

Take your spoon and taste everything as much as you can! Profile them. That’s what I did, and that’s why I know how to mix many cultures & ingredients in my dish.

Try to understand different cultures, flavors, foods.. be interested, curious, and get more experiences, travel, eat a lot. All of these experiences will enrich you. 

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