If you were tasked to capture the city of Seoul on a plate, what would it look like?
For chef Jun Lee, it could be a pillowy-soft doughnut of olives, ricotta cheese and locally grown rhubarb, the latter a staple of Western cuisine uncommonly found in Korean cuisine, yet symbolic of the cosmopolitan Seoulite’s openness to global influences.
Or perhaps an entrée of eel — a stamina-boosting summer staple for Koreans — with garlic scapes and a sauce of burdock, onion and earl grey tea.
Menus at his contemporary Korean restaurant Soigné are precisely designed to showcase the “vibe” of the city, and draws from Seoul’s melting pot of distinctive Korean heritage and diverse international culture.
Just as the city is a blend of Eastern and Western influences in everything from its art, architecture and pop culture, the episodic menus that change every three months at Soigné present “a mixture of American cuisine, European cuisine, as well as Korean cuisine, memories and habits.”
Lee, afterall, is well-placed to navigate this East-West confluence.
After his love for cooking was ignited in middle school, he pursued a degree in Culinary Arts from Kyunghee University followed by further studies at the Culinary Institute of America.
While at CIA, Lee staged at some of the world’s best restaurants including Thomas Keller’s three-MICHELIN-starred Per Se, where he met Per Se head chef Jonathan Benno, who he later joined on the founding team of Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Lincoln.
Upon returning to Seoul, Lee created a series of dining parties and pop-up restaurants before opening Soigné in 2015, and earned a MICHELIN star for the restaurant every year since 2017.
(Fun fact: Soigné, which means “elegantly dressed” in French, was Lee’s nickname at CIA.)
This year, the restaurant was promoted to two MICHELIN stars in the 2023 edition of the MICHELIN Guide Seoul. In an exclusive interview with the MICHELIN Guide, chef Lee tells us more about his first thoughts upon receiving this new distinction.
Tell us more about Soigné.
Soigné serves what we call the contemporary cuisine of Seoul. It's like a mixture of American cuisine, European cuisine, as well as Korean cuisine, memories and habits. I'd like to show the entire vibe of Seoul, the city of Seoul.
What is your favorite dish from the restaurant?
I have one dish, it's called the Seorae Escargot. That dish embodies the meeting of the East and West, and it has a robust flavours of found in Western cuisine, such as truffle, Parmesan cheese and custard. But as soon as you put it in your mouth, the overall feeling is very close to Korean cuisine. [It's something that] Korean people and non-Korean people are familiar with,
even though it's a pretty new dish to them. It is the only one dish that I have never changed since the opening of the restaurant for nine years.
When did you first hear about the MICHELIN Guide?
When I was 20 years old, in college. At that time, it was just another event in another country so I wasn’t too excited about it. But when it was announced that the MICHELIN Guide was going to be published in Korea, I finally thought that I had a realistic chance to aim for the stars. When I thought that I could do it, I started to get excited.
What does the promotion from one MICHELIN star to two MICHELIN stars mean to you?
It was very meaningful. When the MICHELIN Guide Seoul was first published, we received one MICHELIN star, and it has been quite some time since. We didn't specifically aim to get Two Stars, but we've been trying to do more than that. I work with the mindset that if I keep working hard, one day I will be able to achieve more.
The promotion this year means a lot to us. We decided to move to a new venue in August. We were preparing to create a venue with a better environment to mark our 10th year in the business, but when we suddenly got such a good recognition in the middle of our plans, I realized we had made the right decision.
It means a lot to me personally as well. It has been a difficult journey. It was more tiring than I thought to do the same thing in the same place for 10 years, even though we have received recognition along the way. In the meantime, this is an opportunity for me to get motivated and work hard again.
How do you plan to celebrate the accomplishment?
We celebrated among ourselves at the after-party of the MICHELIN Star Revelation Ceremony. Actually, I didn't expect a promotion, and I wasn't prepared in the first place, so I had no plans or preparations to celebrate.
We plan to gather and have a celebration among all our employees later this month. Since there are many employees whom I have worked with for a long time, this promotion is a great joy for me and the employees who worked hard together.
What excites you about the Seoul dining scene today?
I've believed that Korean cuisine is pretty amazing. That is not just because I am Korean.
Korean people are very good at mixing all the things, mingling it all together to create something new. Nowadays, there are so many young chefs and chefs including me who have great culinary experiences from all over the world, all gathered in the city of Seoul right now.
I think the big picture of what they are drawing right now is pretty amazing. And I believe we're not the only cuisine but one of very few one cuisine that actually touches every human being from all around the world.
What’s next for your career?
I really want to put my effort into educating young chefs and young people because not many people actually want to do this job these days. It is very hard work, and it's hazardous.
But I believe this job is pretty amazing, because it is one of the very few jobs that you can actually have a chance to master manufacturing as well as art.
I really want to highlight the positive side of this career and I really want to see many people who are trying to be a chef succeed at it. I want to highlight the possibilities of turning the job of a chef into a career.
Do you have a message for other chefs and diners around the world?
Please come to South Korea. There are so many amazing restaurants. It will be even better when you make a reservation at my restaurant when you do [laughs].