Editor’s Note: Sign up for Unlocking the World, CNN Travel’s weekly newsletter. Get news about destinations opening and closing, inspiration for future adventures, plus the latest in aviation, food and drink, where to stay and other travel developments.
It’s a busy Saturday morning for Jeong Kwan, a South Korean Buddhist monk.
After her early morning meditation practice and breakfast, she tends to her garden inside Baekyangsa, a temple at the scenic Naejangsan National Park, south of Seoul.
The air is filled with the scent of blooming coriander flowers. A wild deer nibbles on the leaves in the garden.
The eggplants and green peppers are growing. The cabbages she planted in the winter are plump and ready to be harvested.
“It is beautiful because it has a lot of energy – it has grown through the cold winter,” the monk tells CNN Travel through a translator, pulling her palms apart to demonstrate the size of this year’s cabbages.
The accidental star chef
Jeong Kwan – her Buddhist name – isn’t your average monk. Her temple cooking has been endorsed by famed chef Éric Ripert of Le Bernardin in a 2015 New York Times profile written by food journalist Jeff Gordinier. An entire episode of the popular Netflix series, “Chef’s Table,” was devoted to her.
Most recently, she was the recipient of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Icon Award in 2022. Voted for by more than 300 members of the Award’s academy, it celebrates culinary figures who have influenced and inspired others positively.
Yet little has changed in her world.
“I am extremely honored to receive the Icon Award… As you already know, I am a monk, not a trained chef. It’s wonderful to hear that people all around the world are interested in Korean cuisine,” says Jeong Kwan.
“Even with such accolades, I need to stay humble and not let pride into my heart. Genuine sincerity is how I greet every person I meet.”
The chef devoted herself to Buddhism in 1974, though says she still feels like a teenager at heart – even if her age and her spirituality have grown.
Unlike many, she already had a sense of the life she wishes to live at a young age. She was in elementary school when she told her father that when she grows up, she would live alone with nature.
When Jeong Kwan was 17 years old, her mother passed away.
“I grieved and after 50 days I went to a temple. There, I met other monks who became my new family. I found enlightenment and joy in practicing Buddhism. I then decided that this is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life, practicing Buddhism,” she says.
Three years into her practice, she moved to her current home, Baekyangsa.
“The path to the temple was very gentle – not bumpy or steep. I felt very calm and peaceful. It was like returning to my mother’s arms,” Jeong Kwan recalls of her first walk to Baekyangsa.
That was 45 years ago.
What is temple cuisine
In 2013, Jeong Kwan decided to open the doors of the temple to visitors so she could connect with people who want to learn about Buddhism – especially through its cuisine.
“Temple food is the connection that brings physical and mental energy together. It is about maximizing the taste and nutrition from plant-based ingredients with limited seasoning or added condiments,” she says.
“Temple cuisine is part of my Buddhist practice and the journey of finding one’s self. The people who cook and the people who eat the temple food are all on a journey to find out ‘Who am I?’ I think Korean temple cuisine connects people together and will continue to play that role.”
All of Jeong Kwan’s dishes are vegan and made without garlic, onions, scallions, chives or leeks. (It’s believed that the five pungent ingredients would disturb the mind’s peace by evoking anger and passion.)
Her food is made with the freshest organic ingredients as well as fermented sauces and dishes like bean paste and kimchi – all grown or made in the temple.
There’s no set menu – she works with whatever produce is fresh that day so dishes vary widely.
Jeong Kwan believes that food can help balance elements in our bodies by restoring our moisture or lowering our body temperature to a harmonious state. One example is doenjang – Korean fermented bean paste – which the monk uses often to create this balance in her food. But making doenjang is a long process.
She and the other temple residents begin by boiling and mashing soybeans in November. Then they are molded into meju – soybean bricks – for drying and storing. In April, salted water is added to the meju. In May, the monks in the temple separate the salted water – which at this stage is now soy sauce – from the bean paste.
“If you come visit, you will see the part of the temple where we store all the traditional ingredients – pastes and sauces – in pots. I have them all labeled so they are very organized. It is a very beautiful place,” says Jeong Kwan, her eyes lighting up as she talks about her food.
“This year’s bean paste is very delicious because the weather has been perfect. It is super sunny in the daytime and still quite chilly in the evenings.”
She has jars of soy sauces, bean pastes and picked radishes that have been brewing in jars for more than two decades now. These are her most treasured creations in the temple.
“I will bring them if I have to move to another temple one day,” jokes Jeong Kwan.
“It is the work of nature. It’s magical how by fermenting, you change the energy of the original ingredient. The picked radishes no longer have the energy of the radishes but they have incorporated the energy of the fermented sauces and then they harmonize our bodies.”
Buddhism and human connections through food
Jeong Kwan realized she had a passion for food from a young age, when she would watch her mother cook.
In 1994, she decided to fully dedicate herself to temple cooking.
“For me, food is so important. It can bring such a strong connection between people,” says Jeong Kwan.
One of her most cherished memories is a temple visit from her father.
“‘Why would you want to stay here – you can’t even eat meat here?’” she recalls him asking.
“I made a mushroom dish for him and after he tasted it, he said, ‘I’ve never tasted something so delicious. If you can eat something so tasty here, I won’t be worried about you. I’m happy for you to stay in the temple.’”
But not all of her best food-related memories took place in her own kitchen. Jeong Kwon has been able to enjoy some incredible meals while traveling overseas.
One time at Paris restaurant Alain Passard, the famed French chef of the same name cooked a vegan meal for her.
“As I was eating, I felt like this is my food. There was no barrier in food. It is very comforting and I felt very at home,” says the monk.
She also holds a special place in her heart for Le Bernardin’s Ripert.
“Chef Éric was one of the people that had really set me free with my food. He helped break down any thoughts that people might have had against temple cuisine or vegan food. He really helped me break out of my shell,” says the monk.
To be free isn’t about “doing whatever you want,” Jeong Kwan adds.
“It’s not feeling caged by remorse and guilt because you’re not following the practices you believe. So following all the virtues of my practice is what makes me truly free,” she says.
One main example for her is cooking with an understanding of the natural life cycles as well as following the Buddhist virtues and teachings.
‘Cooking is not about being fancy’
Jeong Kwan feels her philosophy is especially important in the current world, filled with challenges like the pandemic, international conflicts and climate change.
“We had pandemics and epidemics before. I believe this is all correlated to our actions going against nature,” says the monk.
She thinks society should focus on three important things: to tackle climate change, be more environmentally friendly and respect all lives.
“[By doing all three,] it will be able to help set us back on the right track,” says Jeong Kwan.
Eating and cooking mindfully will enable us “to do everything we need spiritually and physically” even at times of adversity.
She hopes that she could use her new found influence to spread these important messages to the world.
“To me, cooking is not about being fancy or showing off difficult skills but becoming one with the ingredients. When I am cooking, I think of the ingredients as if they are a part of me. When using water and fire to cook vegetables, I feel we have become one.
“The heart and soul put into the food will be received by the people who eat it and create a positive and sustainable cycle,” says Jeong Kwan.
Her aim? To see others adopt a lifestyle that honors and respects nature and our environment, promotes a sustainable lifestyle and has a positive effect on climate change and saves lives.
“In order to do this, I need to change. Small actions start from myself and I hope I will be able to share this with more people around the world, including the wonderful chefs in the Asia 50 Best community,” says Jeong Kwan.
Baekyangsa is a temple within the scenic Naejangsan National Park, about a 3-hour bus ride from Seoul. There is an entrance fee of KW3,000 (or $2.5) for daytime visitors. You can also join one of its temple stay programs, including the Temple Food Experience program featuring a cooking class with Jeong Kwan.