An Interview with Menu Developers of Season's Brazier at Season's Table
Koreans usually eat a bowl of warm rice along with kimchi and several other side dishes. This is actually a very common Korean meal that is very familiar to Koreans. But Korean food proves its real worth among tourists traveling overseas countries. No matter how much fancy food they eat, they begin to miss their ordinary meals at home so much within just a few days.
It is definitely not easy to make such a familiar but indispensable Korean meal become special. CJ Foodville's Korean food brand Season's Table is receiving a great deal of attention for its Korean menu selections that satisfy trendy customers and at the same time, help it fulfill its responsibilities for inheriting traditional food culture and sharing values with farmers. Especially the brand's hot pot series "Season's Brazier" is currently so popular that its sales soared by 20% in just 3 months from its release. Then who are they? Who developed this impressive menu? This time, Reporter Ttubeokchoo interviewed Kim Jin-Young from Produ
- Finding the future of Hansik, or Korean food
"Do you know about bibimbap?"
Bibimbap is a food that extends to Psy and Park Ji-Sung when it comes to the names that represent Korea among foreigners. Frankly speaking, I see no reason why bibimbap has become a food that represents Korea, as I am not a big fan of bibimbap. My mystery list also includes: Do foreigners really know much about Korean food despite such poor promotional efforts? Or do we really only have kimchi, bibimbap and bulgogi, which are worth being introduced to the world?
While having such questions in my head, I recently read Irritable Milk Girl's article about her visit to Jeju Pureun Kongjang. I learned from her article that the farm saved native Jeju soybeans from extinction and that Season's Table developed its 'Direct Fired Pork Barbecue' menu by utilizing the soybean. We probably might be able to find an answer to the future of Korean food from this.
- Kim Jin-Young, Manager of Product Planning Team, CJ Foodville R&D Center
Kim boasts of her overseas experiences: She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and built her career at a Michelin 2-star restaurant. When she won a restaurant dish contest with her dumplings and kimchi-jeon (kimchi pancake), she was thrilled with the idea that Korean food was able to capture the tastes of foreigners.
- Park Yeon-Guk, Head of Menu Development Team, CJ Foodville R&D Center
When I was preparing for the annual college entrance exam, I had a part-time job at a Korean restaurant, and this was when I became mesmerized by the beauty of cooking. I learned from many teachers at Gyeongju Hotel School, including Jeong Gil-Ja, cuisine researcher and 38th holder of Joseon Dynasty royal cuisine techniques (president of Korean Dessert Research Center) and also worked as a chef for many hotels and famous restaurants before joining CJ Foodville.
These two are developing menu selections for Season's Table at CJ Foodville R&D Center. They are Kim Jin-Young who analyzes trends and plans products and Park Yeon-Guk who develop menu features based on the planning.
While I was writing about their duties, I came up with the idea that this is the job of Miss Oh (famous K-drama heroine). Unlike the drama heroine who was dubbed as Salary Lupin (a worker who does not work very faithfully but still gets a salary without fail), however, the reality is reality. Listening to their hard work in the process of planning products, developing menu items and selling at stores across the nation almost made me feel delirious. They are required to be fully acquainted with food knowledge and trends and respond to all possible variables from A through Z. Their duty is a never-ending series of research and development. Released last February, the hot pot menu item of Season's Brazier was also created from such a process.
- Researchers had to engage in such hard work to make even a 0.1 percent difference in Season's Brazier.
"As Season's Table's mega hit menu feature 'Direct Fired Pork Barbecue with Red Pepper Paste' was extremely successful, it was not easy to develop a follow-up signature menu selection. We tried adding various seasonings on different meats, but the result always seemed to be similar to the preceding menu. One day, we decided to develop a menu item based on hot pot culture to inherit our traditional food culture."
Although we had learned from surveys and test entrees that customers showed a high preference for stew dishes, it was still a complete adventure to develop hot pot dishes as a signature menu item. This is particularly because we didn't know how customers who already experienced Japanese shabu-shabu in the restaurant industry would respond to our Season's Brazier. CJ Foodville's research team tried to make a difference in various aspects in order for customers to accept Season's Brazier as Korean traditional food. One of the areas where they made a difference after a great deal of trial and error is with meat broth.
"Almost all Korean homes use anchovies and kelp. As we believed anchovies are the ingredient we need to best capture the tastes of Koreans, we made meat broth with anchovies. But the challenge we faced was to season the broth. No matter how long we boil the broth, we could not have the broth seasoned as much as we expected."
So, the Menu Development Team had a hard time at the first internal tasting event. They re-started from the beginning, this time from the customers' perspective. They repeated experiments where they put veggies and other ingredients in the broth and boiled it for a long time, just like customers do in their kitchen. As the flavor of the broth varies by just a few minutes or a 0.1 percent difference in salinity, the team had to find out how much the broth should be seasoned and how long it boiled to produce the best taste. Another challenge was to make a special sauce.
"Businesses often receive market responses different from their expectations. For example, when we offer various special sauces for a pork menu item, many customers go for a familiar ssamjang and don't even bother to try any unfamiliar sauce. That's why we decided to stick to the sauces of the three basic flavors most preferred by Koreans: soy sauce flavor, hot flavor and a savory flavor."
"Once the Product Planning Team suggests the three directions, we at the Menu Development Team develop sauces that meet the concepts. We have also considered sharing values with farmers when selecting ingredients. As a result, we developed Persimmon Vinegar Soy Sauce using domestic persimmon vinegar, Red Pepper Apple Sour and Sweet Sauce using the juice of apples from Gimcheon, and Savory Perilla Sauce using perilla seeds.
And their efforts paid off. As stores that introduced Season's Brazier menu showed a rise in sales by as much as 15 percent, the new menu features helped it become a successful signature menu.
- After taking a long journey from product planning to menu development
The new menu was released, but it is still not the time to feel relieved; they need to make sure customers can be served with the menu of the same taste and quality no matter which Season's Table restaurant they visit. As the taste of food tends to vary easily depending on people, ingredients and environment, it is also the duty of menu developers to visit branches across the nation and train staff there. If any problem occurs to the supply of ingredients due to, for example, droughts or avian influenza, they also provide alternatives within the extent not to change the taste of the food.
"When we develop menu items, we identify potential risks through test cooking. By doing so, we can respond promptly to any inquiry. For example, if a branch says, "We prepared the menu according to the manual, but the flavor of vinegar is too strong," we can provide a solution like "Adjust the amount of vinegar this way depending on the concentration of the vinegar used."
▲ Park Yeon-Guk (right) is hosting an internal tasting event.
Besides the taste of food, standardization, simplification and specialization are also essential elements to be considered by food service companies. However, good ingredients you want to use, you have to give them up if it is difficult to mass-produce and manage such ingredients. If there occurs any problem in terms of quantity, cost or process at the last stage of menu development, it could prove to be hopeless. As, on top of all these, they also need to consider the visions of CJ Foodville - Inheriting Traditional Food Culture - and - Sharing Values with Farmers, it often takes even one year to go through the process from planning to development.
"We want to use food ingredients of good quality from domestic farmers, but it is challenging to continuously operate them. As these farmers usually produce a small amount, working with them tends to end up with a one-time event.
- Inheriting traditional food culture and conducting unique collaborations
▲ Photo courtesy of: Kim Min-Soo, President of Halla-san Cheongjeongchon
We also found the above-mentioned Jeju Pureun Kongjang in our effort to look for farms that can mass-produce. We turned our eyes to less risky traditional sauces and fermented foods rather than unusual ingredients. In particular, the farm's effort to save disappearing native seeds and traditional techniques matched our vision of inheriting traditional food culture.
"We are conducting many research projects to save our traditional food culture. Gosasinseo, an old book written in 1771, states that when sauces ran out, people made a flour sauce by adding salt to flour yeast. Based on this idea, we are currently developing a menu using yeast salt and yeast sauce. We tried aging meat with the sauce and got quite a positive internal response."
▲ What does meat aged with the traditional yeast sauce taste like?
We conduct research collaborations with Haechandle for traditional fermented foods which are rare in the market. At CJ Foodville R&D Center, we produced yeast salt of desired salinity from good rice and strains. Park said he wanted to develop a white meat sauce for stew, seasoned food and stir-fried food but I could not imagine what it would taste like at all.
"Yes, people can see what's inside when they taste meat aged with red pepper paste or soy sauce. But when they taste meat aged with yeast salt or sauce, they will experience a truly savory taste but won't be able to figure out what ingredients were used."
"It's a taste much more different than that of common condiments."
- "Cuisine and restaurant trip? If this feels like business, you'd better find another job."
From over 200-year-old recipes to hot trends... CJ Foodville researchers' commitment to Hansik, or Korean food is great. I was wondering where they get ideas and if they cook at home as well. You know, people say cooks do not even set foot in their own kitchen at home.
"I can't help doing what I'm curious about."
Park Yeon-Guk from Menu Development Team says he recently conducted an experiment with his wife to find the golden ratio between green plums and sugar. His passion for new tastes is never eased even at home. Subjects of his experiments are usually his two sons.
"I often take a restaurant tour with my team members. When
To Park, who had worked as a Korean food chef for a long time, what he felt the most confident about and was the most important was nothing but taste. But after he joined CJ Foodville, his viewpoint on trends was changed. He reads trend research reports and finds what foods are popular in media. His two favorite programs are
▲ Park Yeon-Guk's meat aging method using straw
"After watching the meat aging with meat covered with straw on TV, I conducted an experiment, but our team members all laughed. But they were surprised at the result. I used only straw but the microbes on straw proliferated and broke down amino acids.”
Amino acids? Ok, I will move on before too many technical aspects come out.
▲ Kim Jin-Young says she is addicted to cooking and taking pictures. She made basil pesto using basil she grew.
Kim Jin-Young from Product Planning Team tends to see the world from the perspective of a restaurant management rather than food. This is why she is sensitive to trends. She is energetic; she searches for hot boutique restaurants or flea markets online and also makes crockery at a pottery academy, coming up with ideas about food.
Her persistent interests and various experiences often lead to item planning. In her New York trip she took with her colleagues last year, she came up with ideas about a new menu and actually applied it to menu development.
▲ Season's Table's Corn Ice Cream and Corn Ice Flakes developed based on Kim's idea
"Milk Bar in New York is famous for its corn cereal and milk ice cream. Dominique Ansel Kitchen also sells corn ice cream every summer. Inspired by these items, I strongly recommended developing corn ice cream and corn ice flakes for this year's menu of Season's Table. This menu had to compete strongly with Naju Melon Ice Flakes, though. The items were recently released and we are now getting good feedback. You absolutely should taste it!"
- Just like making good food out of good ingredients
They talk about their passion for cooking endlessly throughout the long interview. They seem to really love their job. Coincidentally, both of them were able to launch a successful career because they were not an obedient child to their parents. Park disobeyed his father's wish to have his son become a soldier, and Kim gave up a job at the Credit Counseling and Recovery Service, a so-called ‘job for life,' and chose cooking. This might be why they love their job so much.
"To young prospective menu developers, I would like to advise that they be highly sensitive to taste. You would want to fill the remaining 1 gram if you cook food using a scale-based recipe. Unfortunately, only foods good for taking pictures are popular these days. I hope people make foods through the process of looking with their eyes, enjoying with their mouth and analyzing with their brain."
"I left for America aimlessly just because I loved cooking, and this experience helps me a lot when I plan products. To those who want to do the same job as mine, I would like to advise that they see their life from a long-term perspective. You will become a brilliant product planner as long as you have two competencies: cooking and planning, however long it will take."
However good ingredients you have, you should create harmony to make a delicious dish. Individual researchers of strong ability at the R&D Center seek compromise again and again with their subjective opinions and finally create a stellar menu item.
Kim says that she felt very pressured to get through this process at first, but she found that, in the end, sympathy led to teamwork. If you share opinions with others from the idea stage rather than being self-assertive, your thoughts will turn into our thoughts.
Park, who says he used to be very stubborn when it comes to cooking, also obtained the necessary eyes to see the process rather than the result as he got older. He also says that while focusing on the process, he began to see many things he could not see before. As a team leader, he now plays a role to keep young assertive team members coordinated by holding their intention.
- Find a clue for global Hansik from Season's Table that connects the past and the future!
Rapidly-changing trends and various concepts and thousands of different tastes created from ingredients and recipes and big and small risks. And Season's Table's menu selections created through the compromise and persuasion of CJ Foodville researchers! While listening to the passionate and proud stories of Kim Jin-Young, a product planner, and Park Yeon-Guk, a menu developer, I was able to get subtle insights into the future of Hansik, or Korean food.
"I would like to make Hansik familiar to Koreans become special and turn Hansik, which is unfamiliar to foreigners, into a thriving culture."
- Kim Jin-Young
"We still have a long way to go when it comes to globalizing Hansik. But if we look back on how we thought of Hansik and add young trends to our traditional food culture, I am certain that globalization of 'World’s Best' K-Food, which CJ seeks for, will be realized."
- Park Yeon-Guk
Season's Table, which is adding compelling narratives to its menu of Korean food, which is overly familiar for us to realize how special it really is, and CJ Foodville researchers, who are etching a history of K-Food. With their efforts, I think that someday we will be able to see the world fall in love with K-Food without having to ask a "Do you know about bibimbap?" question anymore.