Sitting at home lately, I’ve been seeking solace in things that soothe my soul. Looking to escape the mundane, I dove into the world of OTT platforms and fortunately discovered Netflix’s Chef’s Table. The series is quite voluminous, with stories of ordinary people being transformed into extraordinary chefs at the hands of fate. I admit I haven’t watched all the episodes, but sifting through, looking for stories that would interest me, I came across the story of Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan.
Born in 1957, Jeong Kwan left her home at 17 to become a Buddhist nun at the Chunjinam Hermitage at the Baekyangsa Temple. Describing herself as a ‘monk’ and not a chef, Jeong Kwan dedicates her food to her parents for letting her become who she is today. When Kwan was still a teenager, her mother left the mortal world without influencing Kwan and teaching her how to cook.
By her admission, Kwan, who lived with her family on a small farm, became increasingly depressed when her mother passed away. However, after a period of intense grieving, she decided to go out and leave behind the material world in a bid never to pass down the pain of loss. Most importantly, Kwan wished to live a life of freedom, and this she achieved when she left home and walked up the steps of the Baekyangsa Temple.
Probably like I found solace in watching Kwan, she found her solace in food. Being a Buddhist, it was natural that Kwan’s cooking was an exercise in mindfulness and meditation. ‘Temple food’ as she calls it, Kwan’s all vegetarian cooking unhurried, simple and yet exotic. Whether it is the sheer Lotus Tea, the white, pink, or yellow Pickled Lotus Root, orange Kimchi, Shiitake Mushrooms boiled in a silken brown homemade soy sauce, or the Steamed Eggplant with Kidney Beans and Hot Peppers, Kwan makes sure that each ingredient she puts into a dish adds to the purpose of calming the mind and body.
I’m no expert on food, so apart from talking about Kwan’s recipes’ freshness and simplicity, I cannot speak much on the fare she lovingly and peacefully makes for her fellow monks and nuns. However, what I must speak about is the way Kwan cooks. Watching a petite Kwan on the Chef’s Table, cooking away in the monastery’s wooden kitchens, is an exercise in awareness. It is like a concerto, an amalgamation of earthy notes and colours working towards integrating the five senses.
However, with Kwan, the magic is that she doesn’t just touch upon the five senses we routinely talk about — sound, touch, taste, sight, and hearing; her food, she says, is meant to impact in a greater way, touching upon the body, feeling, perception, intention, and consciousness.
Just as the orchestra builds up slowly, Kwan’s cooking is an ensemble of patience — not just when cooking, but the evident patience of the skills she has honed through years of practice. Kwan’s aura is that of a Kung Fu master practising most meditatively, like shaping air, water, and ether with each action.
Whether it is picking vegetables from the monastery garden, carving patterns on the mushroom, stirring a pot of ageing soy sauce, or even tasting the dish to make sure it is perfection — everything from Kwan’s tiny but stable hands to one-pointed focus on how the dish looks is an exercise in mindful meditation.
Kwan’s stature may make her seem meek and reserved, but it is quite the opposite. With a calm smile on her lips, Kwan routinely manoeuvres through Seoul’s capital city to teach vegetarian cooking to children at various universities. A ‘Woah’ or ‘yeah’ after a class or her visible excitement over soy sauce is quite unexpected of the seemingly bashful Kwan, but these expressions are the most charming, giving you a peek of the child in her.
Buddhism, as we all know, is formed on the premise of compassion and respect. Kwan, through her cooking, transcends this idea of compassion from the worldly to the universe. For Kwan, food is not just a means to energize the body, but to energize it in the right way.
Every handpicked ingredient and the handmade ingredient is added with a purpose to nourish you physically, mentally, and emotionally as you traverse through life. The food Kwan cooks lights a fire inside you, not the literal kind, which is the case with most popular South Korean cuisine, but the kind that propels you to tranquillity. She cooks to honour and respect the mind and body and nature and the planet — all working in tandem to provide for us.
Part of what pulled me toward’s Kwan’s story is how beautifully it is shot. For that, I must thank the Netflix team, which I’m sure worked to capture every essence of Kwan’s philosophy. From the stunning temple to the beautifully messy garden extending into the larger wilderness, this episode’s cinematography cannot be described in words.
For the unfortunate like me, who may not ever be able to visit nun Kwan, the images of the food she cooked are gift enough. Eric Ripert, the Chef and Co-owner of Le Bernardin, and Jeff Gordinier, a writer with The New York Times, who brought Kwan’s other-worldliness to us, must also be profusely thanked because, without them, we could never experience Kwan’s gentle magnificence.
My heart holds a lot more about Jeong Kwan’s cooking, but my words fall short. In her own words, Kwan relives her ancestors’ wisdom through the food that she cooks; and I say that I inherit the heirloom of patience and purity as I watch her do so.
This post was first published here.