Food and Segyehwa in South Korean Cinema


For LMC 3256-F Spring 2013 – Qi Wang


South Korea of the mid-1990s was in nothing short of a political revolution, with its former President Kim Young Sam targeting corruption and formulating Korea’s long-term globalization policy of segyehwa. This policy to unify Korean interests and pivot itself to the world economic stage included an overhaul of both transnational processes and domestic structures (Kim, 198). In addition to its emerging political and economic prowess, its suddenly booming entertainment industry exposed culture as an exportable industry. In 1994, the government significantly expanded its investment in entertainment goals, leading a senior manager of conglomerate Daewoo to remark, “It is our duty and responsibility to export Korean films overseas.” This “Korean Wave” (Shim) has been enthusiastically received abroad and prominently features elements of Korea’s segyehwa policy of balancing this globalization and fierce tenacity to preserve Korea’s national identity. One particularly interesting way Korea has exported culture is via food in cinema and television. Food is a fundamental aspect of a culture, and when flavored with Korean segyehwa and presented on film, the rest of the world can more easily understand its values and perspective as an emerging world power.

Globalization of national identity

Korea has historically struggled with the push and pull of its domestic and foreign issues. While its integrity had been violated from the end of the Joseon dynasty to the economic crisis of 1997, foreign foods became more accessible through foreign militaries and subsequent deals brokered favoring foreign companies. Despite their nationalist and economic rebound in the 1960s and rapid globalization in the 1990s, they have not been able to shake the foreign influence on food. Korean consumers provide a high demand for the uncommon wheat and dairy products as well as restaurant chains like McDonalds; however, the government has advocated strongly for their return to national foods and thus cuisine to reassert their national identity and their international face (Feffer, 44). Such is the drive of film and television incarnations of Sikgaek (known in the West as Le Grand Chef and Gourmet, respectively), where the more traditional Korean character Sung-Chan is pitted against his more global-minded rival for the title of the best Korean chef.

Sung-Chan is a young man working as a mid-level cook when he joins a cooking contest with his rival. However, when some embarrassing event out of his control occurs, he quits the restaurant business and cooking altogether, retreating to a modest agricultural life. His character’s early history in both Le Grand Chef and Gourmet is not too dissimilar from Korea’s post-Joseon dynasty era. However, when his ambitious rival loses face—by acting arrogantly (Le Grand Chef), resisting her past (Le Grand Chef 2), or shunning tradition for globalization (Gourmet)—Sung-Chan is drawn into another cooking competition that embodies the current dilemma of segyehwa. While Sung-Chan prizes the traditional Korean ingredients and preparation, his rival often prepares something more suited to the tastes of prominent foreign nations, often sacrificing the dish’s Korean-ness. In Le Grand Chef, he wins because he uses the same traditional recipe his grandfather, an apprentice of the last royal chef of the Joseon dynasty, passed on to him as his “final gift.” This “final gift” is something traditionally Korean: soup (Le Grand Chef), kimchi (Le Grand Chef 2), and sauce (Gourmet). His rival, however, uses a recipe developed by combining Korean and Japanese recipes, thus corrupting the dish’s integrity, and loses the competition. That is, he effectively fails to solve the dilemma of fusion versus tradition.

Representation of foreign influence

Solving this dilemma is actually up to the panel of judges, like the international community, by deciding who wins the competition. The competition itself is meant to single out the most pure Korean chefs who also make something worthy of export—quite the allegory. By the act of eating and tasting the food prepared at the competition, the judges are representative of foreign countries, including historical enemies and allies, importing and identifying with Korean culture. This is more apparent in the Gourmet television series, where the judges are actually from many different countries. In Le Grand Chef and Le Grand Chef 2, however, the main judge is Japanese and all the others Korean, indicating Japan is a specific focus of asserting their national identity. Interestingly, this Japanese judge is more attuned to the nuances of Korean cuisine and its history, and he scolds Bong-Ju for his Japanese influenced dish.

The Japanese judge is a sympathetic one, somewhat penitent for his ancestors’ role in the occupation of Korea a century prior. His amiable character contrasts with his contempt for the dish Bong-Ju—Sung-Chan’s rival and pro-fusion chef in Le Grand Chef—prepares using a heavily Japanese-influenced recipe instead of something more Korean. This character represents the case that if Japan, a historical rival and aggressor to Korea, would import Korean culture, then Korea comes out as the victor to the cultural exchange and can influence an East Asian nation that often dissociates itself from and antagonizes the rest of Asia (Thakur and Inoguchi). Sung-Chan does win the competition, and he is regarded as the “true descendant” of the former royal chef and worthy of receiving the chef’s knife that the Japanese judge’s ancestor took to Japan during their occupation of Korea.

Food as a bastion of threatened tradition

In all the incarnations of Sikgaek, the encroachment of Japanese influence on the Korean peninsula from as far back as the Joseon Dynasty is represented as a threat to both identity and culinary tradition. The food that the royal chefs prepared for their court is depicted as the last bastion of their threatened traditions at the whim of its Japanese occupiers. The winning dish of Le Grand Chef is one that symbolized in one bowl the continuation of traditional Korean culture through its cuisine despite the Japanese occupiers. Sung-Chan’s unwavering faith and preservation of his food’s Korean integrity has foils in his rivals’ faults, varying between incarnations of Sikgaek, of violating that trust in food by fusing it with foreign cuisines. Fusion cuisine is considered dangerous as it runs the risk of undermining Korea’s recent efforts to reassert its own culture now that it is independent.

Cuisines can be difficult to control, though, preserving both local flavors and ingredients as well as protecting from fusion cuisine being misconstrued as original. This is evident in both film and TV incarnations of Sikgaek. When a uniquely Korean dish is prepared using foreign, often Japanese, ingredients, the dish is often discredited, while a Korean dish prepared using foreign techniques and presentation is often lauded. For example, the dish Sung-Chan prepares at the end of Le Grand Chef is a soup (tang) that was traditionally served to the royal court in the Joseon Dynasty. Its simple composition belies its complex representation of all the major agricultural products of Korea in a single bowl that can be enjoyed by all, regardless of nationality. Bong-Ju’s dish was also a soup, but its recipe was strongly influenced by Japanese cuisine and thus became a Japanese dish in the eyes of the judges. In effect, the identity seems to lie more in the ingredients and preparation, while the way it is presented and paired with auxiliary flavors is a sort of packaging meant for foreign consumption. Korean cuisine is thus kept true to its culture while it is packaged and ready to be exported to other cultures intact. Corruption is a common theme in both food itself and the people who judge them, who are a sort of representation of the Korean public this film is meant to educate.

Later in the Gourmet series, we see the Japanese return again as a corporate force, threatening the restaurant run by the descendants of the last royal chef with a takeover and hijacking of its cuisine. A real life comparison is Japanese restaurants selling the popular Korean food kimchi during the 1996 Olympics with the “Japanified” name kimuchi. The conflict was finally resolved by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international food standards body, who separated Japanese kimuchi from the traditional Korean preparation of kimchi. Japan seems more accepting of foreign influence in its food films. For example, in Japanese manga and TV series Bambino!, the titular character works in an Italian restaurant in Tokyo where Italian is even the preferred language of the kitchen. If such a setup existed in a South Korean analog, it would border on treason.

Chefs role in society

This is where we see the cultural identity of not just the food, but the chefs who prepare it. Korean royal court cuisine is the highlight of the Sikgaek series and is a cultural asset protected by the Korean government. The cuisine is further developed by the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine, who has discretion over its professionalization and globalization such as offering certification classes and certificates on the cuisine. The former royal chefs are glorified in Sikgaek, more highly respected than would be likely in other cultures. Their lineage is also paramount to skill, as the recognition as their true successor is the goal in Le Grand Chef and is a source of drama in Gourmet. Sung-Chan’s character is much more modest and down-to-earth, as we follow him in subplots throughout Korea. His cooking is a means of communicating through food and actively preserving culture. This is foiled by his rivals using food as a means of expediting the Korean Wave by reformulating classic Korean foods for foreign appreciation. They are often in the celebrity chef role, styled after personalities popularized in the U.S. and Japan by culinary television shows. Furthermore, we more often see these characters dressed in a more stylish and foreign way compared to the more traditional Korean dress of Sung-Chan. Their often arrogant and vain personalities show the characteristic faults of globalization’s cost to the Korean segyehwa policy.

Korea’s new policies and global goals also included more active participation in the United Nations, prompting a significant human rights overhaul for women. In all these films, the role of women is often much more sidelined or even scoffed at, treated as if a woman in an apron is acceptable yet standing in a restaurant kitchen is unheard of. Women are depicted as overcoming a sort of disability by joining men in the kitchen, and Sung-Chan’s rival Jang-Eun in Le Grand Chef 2 even runs her kitchen as a celebrity chef, replacing the former film’s Bong-Ju character. In this film, like its predecessor, the theme is Korea’s globalization via food but also incorporates the contemporary issue of expanding women’s rights in Korea. As 10% more women entered Korea’s workforce in the previous 30 years, progress has been made to equal rights and social status; however, Korea’s application of international standards for human rights, including those targeting women, has been inconsistent at best (Kim, 142-146). Still, women are heroes of effort in Le Grand Chef 2, as Jang-Eun’s mother—also Sung-Chan’s adoptive mother—runs her restaurant while silently enduring her cancer. Jin-su is another important female character in all of Sikgaek that acts as a plot device and sidekick to Sung-Chan. Despite their fame, skill, competence, and endurance, women are accessorized or overshadowed by the films’ male leads in the narratives of the works cited and many other Korean films. They, like food, seem to be meant as decoration or something to be consumed by the more plot-critical characters to drive them. Women are written as supporting or foil characters whose efforts are often either helpful to or defeated by the main character. While their efforts and food they prepare are representative of their culture in a struggle with globalization, so are their own gender roles in a less flattering light.


High domestic ratings and box office success of Sikgaek indicate a close identification of the Korean audience to their premise. That is, the delicate balance of globalization and cultural preservation via segyehwa is a common enough cultural theme to not need to be explicitly delineated. They demonstrate that food and cooking connects people on a very common level, and it shows how its cuisine has survived tougher challenges than Korea’s segyehwa policies. Furthermore, fusion cuisine and adoption of foreign influences in its food is also an acceptable risk. For example, the film Antique is set around a Korean bakery and how its staff and patrons have been influenced by baked goods. However, before the massive grain exportation from the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, Koreans had not largely developed a taste for bread at all and had no bakeries (Feffer). Since then, Koreans have adopted bread to the point that it is an acceptable setting for a film that focuses heavily on characters accepting their past and moving on. Perhaps there is not so much a particular Korean quality to these films, but rather the historical ability of Koreans to adapt to the elements, redefine the qualities of Korean culture, and move on. These films’ strong performance abroad shows the export of culture via the Korean Wave has been hugely successful in Asia and beyond. As these selected works are from just the last decade, we can expect to see further elucidation of Korean cuisine as a core element of Korean culture as it emerges into the world market.

Works Cited

Antique. [Korean: 서양골동양과자점 엔티크.] Dir. Kyu-dong Min. Perf. Ju Ji-hoon, Kim Jae-wook, Yoo Ah-in, and Choi Ji-ho. Soon Film Company, 2008.

Bambino. [Japanese: バンビ~ノ!.] Matsumoto, Jun. NTV, Tokyo. 2008. Television.

Feffer, John. Korean Food, Korean Identity: The Impact of Globalization on Korean Agriculture. Publication. Shorenstein APARC, 2005. Web.

Gourmet. [Korean: 식객.] Choi, Wan-kyu, and Park Hoo-jung. SBS, Seoul. 2008. Television.

Kim, Samuel S., ed. Korea’s Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Web.

Le Grand Chef. [Korean: 식객.] Dir. Yun-su Jeon. Perf. Kim Kang-woo and Lee Ha-na. ShowEast Co s, 2007.

Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle. [Korean: 식객 2: 김치 전쟁.] Dir. Dong-hoon Baek. Perf. Kim Jung-eun and Jin Goo. IROOM Pictures, 2010.

Shim, Doobo. “Korean Media Liberalization and Development.” Waxing the Korean Wave. Singapore: Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, 2011. 7-9. Web.

Thakur, Ramesh, and Takashi Inoguchi. “Is Japan to Mainland Asia What Britain Is to Europe?” UNU Update. United Nations University, Jan.-Feb. 2004. Web.