FOOD & STYLE

Chef Yeo Kyung-ok Extols Virtues of Chinese Cuisine
LOTTE HOTEL SEOUL’s Toh Lim was the only Chinese restaurant in Korea to make the prestigious ‘La Liste 2020.’ So how do you make the best Chinese food in the country? We went right to the source in chef Yeo Kyung-ok, who oversees Toh Lim and all Chinese dining at LOTTE HOTEL.
Each year, the French Tourism Board selects the 1,000 best restaurants around the world for ‘La Liste,’ the prestigious guide to fine dining. There were 22 Korean restaurants on La Liste 2020, and LOTTE HOTEL SEOUL’s Toh Lim was the only Chinese restaurant in the country. How has Toh Lim been able to thrive when besieged by Korean, Japanese and Western dining places? Chef Yeo Kyung-ok is at the heart of the success story.
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Toh Lim

“The only thing chefs can do is to prepare dishes the best we can. No matter what the latest trends are, you can’t compromise nutrition and taste. The history of the Chinese cuisine dates back 5,000 years, and each cuisine has its own traditions. You have to add something new to that history. You should obviously satisfy the palate, and you should also prepare interesting stories to go with that.”
Chef Yeo Kyung-ok
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Toh Lim’s entrance. Personal chopsticks of regular customers are placed in transparent cases.

Taste of Toh Lim, Created with Our Own Hands
Teamwork is everything when it comes to putting food on the table. The orchestral performance of a symphony by dozens of players with the conductor at the helm, or the pit stop during an F1 race with maintenance workers moving like a well-oiled machine, won’t be that much different from the scene inside a kitchen during busy hours. The common thread here is that the people involved in these jobs all strive toward the identical goal, and the orchestra, the pit stop and the kitchen must all have a great leader.
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Chef Yeo Kyung-ok

Yeo Kyung-ok is a veteran chef of the Chinese cuisine, with specialty in Cantonese food. He entered the business as a teenager and now has more than four decades of experience. He joined LOTTE HOTEL in 2013. The first thing he did after getting put in charge of LOTTE HOTEL’s Chinese restaurant, Toh Lim, and of Chinese dining in general at the hotel, was to rewrite Toh Lim’s recipes. He wanted to standardize recipes, so that dishes would always taste the same no matter who was making them in the kitchen. He wanted to ensure customers would enjoy the same, delicious food regardless of which Toh Lim restaurant they visit.
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Toh Lim

Obviously, it wasn’t an easy process. In particular, trying to get individual chefs to alter their habits and muscle memories was difficult. “It took about a year just to get the recipes done,” Yeo said. All the chefs were asked to prepare the same dishes and they sampled each other’s food before settling on the best recipe out there. And Yeo sprinkled them with his experience and fresh ideas. “Even if it was just one item, I would never just go ahead and make all the decisions alone, even though I am responsible for dining here. We have to get as many people from both in and outside our kitchen to sample it, so that we can identify the taste that will satisfy the majority. It’s not my cuisine alone. It’s for everyone.”
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Toh Lim

How He Leads His Kitchen
“The surrounding is important, and it comes down to how I feel about my surrounding. If you have good people working with you, make great food, and have people come in and enjoy it, how great is that?” Throughout our interview, Yeo stayed upbeat. We set up the interview during Toh Lim’s mid-day break. We also asked him to take different poses for photos, and even as my photographer and I went to all corners of the restaurant to take pictures, Yeo never left the scene. He cracked jokes and had chit-chats with his staffers as they were setting up dinner. It didn’t seem like things would be much different inside the kitchen. “When I was still in my 40s, I was fairly strict, and I ruled with an iron fist,” Yeo said. “But today, whoever yells at an employee here will get an earful from me. When you admonish someone, then you could forget about what the whole point is. Scolding should be merely a tool, not the purpose. Those at the other end of it can’t figure out what the scolder wants. There are pros and cons. Personally, I think it’s more efficient if you just tell people what you want. In specific, no uncertain terms.”
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Chef Yeo Kyung-ok

Chinese Cuisine Has Earned Global Recognition, Needs to Keep Evolving
Late last year, Toh Lim found itself under the bright spotlight. It was the only Chinese restaurant in Korea to make ‘La Liste 2020.’ This was all thanks to the teamwork at Toh Lim, with chef Yeo in control of the collective effort. We asked Yeo how he felt about the inclusion. “I am grateful that Toh Lim got on ‘La Liste,’ but I am happier when our customers enjoy our food,” he said with a smile.
Yeo has taken a keen interest in the future of Chinese dining in Korea. “I believe other Chinese restaurants in Korea are good enough to be included on ‘La Liste.’ I think the Chinese cuisine here has improved so much since the early 2000s,” Yeo said. “Dining is culture, and it’s not really something you can judge and rank. But I still wonder why there aren’t more people who see the greatness of Chinese cuisine. I am trying to figure out ways to get the word out.”
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Bul Do Jang, Toh Lim’s signature dish

Putting in Work
Yeo travels to Jeolla, Gyeongang and Gangwon provinces about two to three times a year in search of new ingredients, be it meat, seafood or vegetables. “Cantonese dishes often accentuate the flavors of raw materials. So if you don’t have delicious ingredients, you can’t make the finished product delicious,” he said. Yeo also takes into account local surroundings and seasonal elements for his ingredients. There are three Toh Lim locations today: at LOTTE HOTEL SEOUL, LOTTE HOTEL WORLD and LOTTE HOTEL BUSAN. They use the same, standardized recipes, and on top of that, they offer seasonal flavors using local ingredients. Though spring isn’t quite here yet, Yeo is a couple of steps ahead. “New seasons tend to arrive fast these days, and we have to start preparing for summer,” he said. “We usually start getting hints of summer in April or May.” For the month of March, Yeo recommends Chengdu noodle soup with hanwoo beef and green beans, plus bouillon crab roe sauce. The noodle soup brings the taste of spring with green beans, with the sauce offering the spicy edge. Bouillon crab roe sauce is Toh Lim’s signature dish. The sauce is put on top of stir-fried crabmeat and egg, and Yeo has added more flavor to the sauce.
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The N Seoul Tower is visible through the window.

Doors Always Open
During lunch hours, each table exuded different vibes. There were people out on a business lunch, and others were with their friends or family for celebration. And you’ll see a far more diverse crowd at Toh Lim than before. And Yeo worked behind the scenes to make sure people wouldn’t feel intimidated by a Chinese place at a hotel, and that anyone could come in and enjoy their meals. “Toh Lim is one of the best Chinese restaurants in Korea, and it’s on the 37th floor. So you have to take the elevator up. People could have reservations about coming here,” he said. “So we went to work on popular Chinese dishes and made them luxurious. We’re serving jjangmyeon with hanwoo beef, and sweet and sour beef with hanwoo.” The items you see on the menu at Toh Lim are all familiar, but there’s something unique to these dishes. We asked Yeo when the best hours are to enjoy dining at Toh Lim. “The sun sets at different hours from season to season, so it’s hard to tell you the exact time slot. But the best seats are by the windows at sunsets.” On a clear day, you’ll get the full view of Namsan Seoul Tower. If you can get past the idea of dining on the 37th floor of a high-end hotel in the center of Seoul, you’ll get to enjoy great food against this spectacular backdrop.
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Toh Lim

LOTTE HOTEL SEOUL Toh Lim
Address LOTTE HOTEL SEOUL Main Tower 37F, 30 Euljiro, Jung-gu, Seoul
Inquiry +82-2-317-7101
Website www.lottehotel.com/seoul-hotel/ko/dining/restaurant-toh-lim
March 2020 Editor:Kim Hyewon
Photographer:Park Sungyoung

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LOTTE HOTELS & RESORTS
  • March 2020
  • Editor: Kim Hyewon
  • Photographer: Park Sungyoung
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