Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’ provides an insight into some of the greatest culinary talents across the globe. Season three, episode one however, does not examine the work of a chef. At least not in the commercial sense of the word. I have watched a number of Chef’s Table episodes and despite them all being brilliant and hugely inspiring, none of them left a mark on me quite like this episode did.
The episode follows Buddhist Monk Jeong Kwan and documents the creation of her “temple food”. Born and raised in South Korea, Jeong Kwan resides in the Chunjinam Hermitage at the Baekyangsa temple, where she practices as a Buddhist monk. Jeong made the decision to devote her life to her practice and leave for the Buddhist temple at the tender age of 17.
It is easy to under appreciate such a decision. Jeong describes the 3am wake up calls that she struggled with at first, often sneaking off to try and catch up on sleep. A rigorous schedule of prayers, food and work, followed by prayers, food and work, before sleeping to repeat the following day. Throughout the film, she thanks her parents for their endless love and support towards this lifelong decision.
Jeong Kwan’s food is strictly plant based and her ingredients are mostly sourced from the temple gardens. Jeong allows the temple garden to grow freely. The plants can move in direction they please, insects are allowed to feed on the leaves and a wild boar may steal a squash from time to time – but Jeong says, that is just nature.
Her use of spice and flavouring is limited and simple, however this does not reflect in the final flavour of the dish. Jeong adopts the most natural of processes in her creation of food, utilising time and a delicate harmony of the most simple ingredients to create diverse and rich flavours. Dishes such as her Shitake Mushroom boiled in Soy Sauce and fermented Cabbage Kimchi exemplify how the most simple and natural of approaches can yield incredible results.
Jeong describes how this harmony of flavours reflects the harmony of her mind. Cooking to Jeong is a form of meditation. Too many bold flavours such as onion and garlic, can distract from the calmness of mind that is required in her Buddhist practice. In fact, Jeong’s “temple food” is simply one reflection of her Buddhist practice. Fermentation, a limited use of ingredients and the delicate balancing of flavours, provide an underlying lesson in how to practice life itself.
Jeong proves that living and working with the bare necessities can often make life much more enjoyable and rewarding. She reminds us to appreciate nature and the thousands of thriving eco-systems that make life possible, to take a moment in our day for silence, and to pursue freedom for our mind, body and soul. Things that are so often lost in our busy western lifestyle.
Although experienced over 60 minutes through a television screen, you are left with a sense of inspiration and love after the film. Jeong Kwan’s disciplined practice is truly something to be admired and learned from. Credit must be given to director David Gelb and the entire team behind Chef’s Table, as not once does the production distract from Jeong and her practice. Instead the slow paced shots create a mood that makes you feel as though you are merely an onlooker in the temple itself. This, coupled with a classical score by Duncan Thum and timely interviews from Jeff Gordinier (The New York Times) and Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin), enhance the purity and meaning behind Jeong Kwan’s practice.
While it may sound hyperbolic to say that this film can change your life, believe me, it is not. We have a world that is beautiful. A world that provides for us exactly what we need. In the words of Jeong Kwan, an “Orchestra”. It’s due time we began to listen.