Summer can remind you of many images made with glaring sun, beach, sounds of cicadas, sweats and monsoon. It may be because of the weather that the season leaves strong impression and memories for many.
The chefs and owners of “L’estiu” tells stories about their favorite seasons, summer through the medium of their favorite Spanish cuisine. Scents of orange spreading throughout the restaurant, bright color palettes and a variety of hams and cheese are all added together to create an atmosphere that resembles much to a neighborhood diner in Europe.
Before phasing into chilly days of fall, we had a talk about the Mediterranean summer that the chef and owner of L’estiu is picturing.
Q. Please tell us shortly about your restaurant, “L’estiu.”
We named the restaurant after a Valencian word for summer – the favorite seasons of ours. And the Mediterranean region reveals its best during the season. Fresh vegetable and sweet fruits are pouring out in the beginning of every summer, and these are great for making great Mediterranean dishes. We designed this place to introduce Mediterranean culture and scenes of summer in the region, serving customers with fresh and heart-warming Mediterranean dishes.
Q. Could you tell us more about the Mediterranean culture and scenes of summer in the region that you seek to introduce?
Produce and fruits are tremendously fresh in the region in the beginning of summer. The abundance of food ingredients made summer one of the favorite seasons to cook when I stayed in Spain. And we kicked off our own project of sharing bright and refreshing energy of the region. This is part of the project to introduce the culture of Mediterranean region in Korea, and it is still ongoing.
Q. Are you planning to introduce Spanish and Mediterranean culture through other medium in the future?
Yes. Since I cook for living, I am looking into other menus to continue the ambitious project.
Q. Are you focusing on the Mediterranean culture because you spent years in the region?
I need to say that I didn’t live on the seaside regions. But Jose grew up in the area in Valencia, which was only twenty to thirty minutes away by car. And to be precise, the Mediterranean Sea is so vast that quite a few countries are bordering with it. Those countries include not only Spain, Italy and France, but also Greece and Croatia. And all of these countries boast richness in culinary culture, because they source high quality food ingredients from both land and sea. Inspired from abundance and diversity of the region, the menu includes not only Spanish but also some of Turkish, such as dishes made with phyllo dough. And as a chef, I can recall that the travel destinations that I got inspiration from happen to be located in the region.
Q. L’estiu seems to have a lot of stories to tell. When and how did you start it?
I spent almost a decade focusing on European dishes and “Cocina Espanola” has always been my favorite. After spending years in Spain, Jose and I made a big decision to come to Korea and materialized our ideas with “L’estiu.” Well, I didn’t plan to come back home at first (laugh).
Q. What made you fall in love with Cocina Espanola?
I spent many years in Chile. And most of the region were colonies of Spain and had enormous influence from the country. Spending few years in the country during my teenage years, I learned about the root of the culture I had been exposed to and fell in love with it. When I started travelling around on my own, I had a chance to visit Turkey and enjoyed it, because Spanish and Turkish culinary culture share a lot of things in common. For your information, the Silk Road stretched across Istanbul, Turkey and then ended in Valencia, Spain. And through the cross-continental travel route, spices such as saffron, as well as silk, were first introduced in Spain and then spread to the rest of Europe. From this historical background, Valencia both culture of the East and the West fused together.
Q. I can assume from the history that Valencia has become home of Paella. As far as I know, you need some saffron for a proper pan of Paella.
That’s correct. You do need saffron to make a pan of Paella. And most of all, the kind of rice you find in Spain, Arroz Bomba is similar to the Asian kind. It originally came from China, and then spread to Korea, Japan, India, Middle East and then finally, to Europe. This could give you a clue of why you find the kinds in Spain. Some are genetically developed that grains are bigger than the kinds you eat in Korea. But it is from the same root. In this sense, I suppose Spanish dishes are popular in Korea, probably because they have some influence from Asia. And I am finding myself delighted from learning more about Spanish cuisine, delving further.
Q. The region of Valencia, Spain served as a gateway between the East and the West.
You can still find silk markets in the region. And you may find some Asian touches from the dishes you enjoy, such as saffron. When I travelled to Turkey to stay for a month, exploring food and culture, I came to know more about where the Mediterranean cuisine come from. Because historically, Arabian merchants travelled across Turkey and then reached Spain, sailing through the Mediterranean Sea. The experience in Turkey opened my eyes to how spices and food ingredients were used. Seriously, when you delve into cooking, it is going to be enlightening.
Q. Your comments could help many to explore Spain with different perspective. I personally look forward to travelling to Valencia.
Well, there are so many places to explore, other than Barcelona and Madrid, such as the southern part and the northern part, the gourmet heaven. San Sebastian in the north has made its name for its rich culinary culture, and if you travel south, you will get to Valencia and Andalusia.
Q. Where did you say mostly?
I spent quite a while in Madrid and Gijon, the northern part. And with Jose, I been to areas such as San Sebastian. Pamplona has been one of my favorite destinations as well. Well, honestly, I like every part of Spain. When I go to Spain, I normally spend about a month, learning about local food and cooking techniques.
Q. Speaking of Jose, how did you first meet him?
Oh, when I was doing things other than cooking such as interpreting and translating for living in Spain, I met him.
Q. Did you make a career switch from something else to cooking?
No. Precisely speaking, I cooked for day, and did some other things outside of work such as interpreting and translating. I didn’t go to culinary schools. I studied something different. I did run a restaurant in the past, but I wasn’t serious about cooking back then. I met Jose at a bar in Madrid, when I was staying for other business.
Q. The first encounter led two of you in L’estiu now.
Correct. And he is my boyfriend now. At first, we didn’t plan to open a place in Seochon. We were thinking about flying back to Spain and open a new restaurant.
Q. Did you change your plan because of the pandemic?
That’s not quite the case. We opened before the outbreak. The original plan was to open a place in Spain, with different concepts and ideas. But Jose wanted to stay and experience Asia, and my acquaintances suggested I should give a try. And most importantly, I liked the neighborhood of Seochon that we ended up here.
Q. What was good about Seochon to bring you here?
Staying in Korea, I became familiar with Seochon the because I had a few friends in “neighborhood” and lived in Seongbuk-dong, which is not too far away. And when I first met Jose, I was into Korean cuisine and tried to learn more about it that I could blend easily into the vibe of the neighborhood with unique cultural elements of Korea. We are not serving Korean dishes because a lot of my instructors and acquaintances advised me not to go too far with experimenting (laugh). But at least I am trying to present inspiration from Korean cuisine, revolving around, jeongseong, the spirit of serving customers well. And I like Korean ceramics and lacquered tableware that I used a lot of them. This may sound contradicting, but to me, Seochon is a neighborhood of contrasts and diversity.
In a sense, it is the contrasts and diversity – just like the relationship between Jose and me – brought us to Seochon.
Q. It is fascinating to know that after spending many years outside of Korea, you ended up in the neighborhood that is close to where you were originally from. What about Jose? Things could be entirely different from where he is from.
First of all, he loves Korean traditional housing, hanok. He has had opportunities to explore great places.
Q. Are you living in one of the Korean traditional housings these days?
No (laugh). We are living in a detached house. I know a few ceramic artists friends who are living in hanok and Jose was exposed to these Korean traditional housings. For now, he seems to be happy with his life in Seochon, because there are a few things similar to his home in Spain. But interestingly, he likes skyscrapers as well, because there are only few back in his home. He also likes bustling atmosphere.
Q. Seochon seems to be the right fit for Jose, because he could continue his pattern from his home, Spain but it takes a few walks to get to bustling downtown like Gwanghwamun.
Where I am originally from, Seongbuk-dong is similar to Seochon. So, the area is a great fit for me as well. But Jose gets stressed from time to time. Because things are fast paced here in Korea that he sometimes gets puzzled. And as for me, even if I have spent years outsides of Korea, I am still one of those who prefer faster pace. So much so that every time I grow impatient, he gets flustered. Because nobody would do so in front of him in Spain. For instance, when you ask for a cup of water in a restaurant, you would patiently wait in Spain. But it is the exact opposite in Korea. But he is adapting himself well in his new home.
Q. I agree. Everything is fast paced here in Korea. For lifestyle wise, what could be different from where two of you were?
Days are normally longer in Spain. In summer, it is bright until about ten o’clock. But here in Korea, days are much shorter. This could be why people have different mealtime. In Spain, you have a cup of coffee and a piece of small bread like croissant, and then have some sandwich for breakfast at eleven o’clock. Then you have lunch at three o’clock in the afternoon and take a quick nap, siesta, and have an afternoon tea at around six o’clock and dinner at ten o’clock. Days are so long that you have plenty of time. But in back in Korea, everything is quick, and many things keep overlapping that sometimes, even I feel awkward. We get to argue quite often here in Korea, because lifestyle and perspective are different. But we feel lucky that we are staying in Seochon.
Q. Just as the two countries are distant from each other, they are culturally different. Let’s switch back to the topics on L’estiu. From charcuterie on the menu and charcuterie section in your restaurant, I could tell that you are committed to ham and cheese menus.
In fact, you can find “charcuterie” in almost any part of Europe. I have been familiar with the scenes and the menu from these kinds of shops. Every time I sent to one of these charcuterie with my mother, I felt really great. I liked funky smell of the place and friendly atmosphere of these shops – the owners would often let me taste a few before my mother and I make decisions. But when I first came back to Korea about fifteen years ago, I was disappointed that I almost broke out into tears. Since then, charcuterie turned into a special menu to enjoy, only when my family or friends send me some. Jose and I used to drop by charcuteries with many years of history and have fun going tit-for-tat over what to choose, but this has become a part of past memories now. For the restaurant, Jose handpicks and serves fermented charcuterie that are made by so-called masters in Spain. And people like me cannot even think about making them. But we sometimes make fresh sausages or cheese to sell or serve. And we often let our regulars from the neighborhood to taste some of charcuteries to share at least bits and parts of my childhood memories. I’m very pleased to see customers bringing their children with them these days.
Q. I noticed that you are serving your customers with Vol. II of the menu. What’s been updated from Vol.I and how often do you update?
For one, I’m not patient (laugh). I’m not a type of person to keep cooking and serving the same menu. And I often argue with Jose about menus. He often ends up growling about why we should update menus that we have been serving well (laugh). My mother often says that Jose is more like Korea, being serious and honest to goodness. But I am curious about so many things that I need to touch, smell and feel for myself. We make updates on the menu every three to four months before presenting new volume of the menu. Every season, different in-season food ingredients arrive our restaurant. And moreover, four seasons are distinct in here in Korea that with seasonal changes, we are changing menus.
Before I opened this place, I was struggling between western dishes and Korean dishes that I had learned. And even if I used the best locally sourced ingredients and sauces from Korea, my dishes didn’t taste like Korean. Then one day, my youngest sibling in Spain made a cutting remark, “the dishes you make are just like you.” It was striking to me. Since then, I came to accept the way I am, leading to the first volume of the menu for the restaurant. With the menu, I could tell who I am to my customers, serving dishes filled with inspiration from both countries. For instance, the sirloin steak was sourced from local livestock farms and then marinated with soy sauce that my mother made in the year I was born before grilling and sizzling with basic western technique. And the dish was paired with Korean seasonal vegetable, bomnamul for spring. Another one of menu that we are still serving, “Polpo a la Seochonesa” is a dish of octopus from East Sea that perfectly cooked with Galacian technique and served with a mix of homemade gochujang (red pepper paste) and doenjang (soybean paste) made by my mother, honeyed citrus and red pepper oil on top. I tried to present and tell who I was – Korean but not a perfect Korean or westerner.
With summer coming near, I wanted to make changes with food ingredients and tried to tell stories about pasts memories for Vol. II of the menu. For instance, one of the most dishes to me could be translated into “Yaya’s Salmon,” which was inspired from marinated salmon dishes that Jose’s grandmother often made for us. And making the dishes, I missed her so much that I cried a few times. And with “Ducks from Palmar,” we tried to make Ibizan burrata and share memories of summer in Valencia. And the octopus dish we are serving in an homage to one of my favorite dishes from the northern part, “Pulpo a la Gallega.” In short, the menu was themed around nostalgia, because many of us are missing our loved ones and the past because of the pandemic.
Ending each volume, we end up with a lot to think about. I am looking into making my own research to compare past and present menus to make further improvement. And in parallel, we are running our own project of making recipe books for upgrades.
Q. We should all look forward to Vol.III! Where do you get inspiration from?
Like I said, we get inspired from so many things around us. And we seek to find measures to materialize intangible past memories surrounding family, travel, home and friends.
And cooking itself is being an enormous inspiration to me that I am finding utmost pleasure from reinterpreting traditional recipes and updating conventional recipe and tastes with new techniques. “5 Jotas con Guisante,” for instance, is an update of tapas that is often served with jamon and green peas in diners in the northern part of Spain. We are serving with in-season peas cooked in broth made with the best quality 5 jotas jamon, pairing with egg benedict in a pot made by a pottery artist, Lee Seyong. And we presented reinterpretation of Gambas al ajillo with sous vide technique for Vol. I. For All i Pebre, a Valencian dish made with eels, we serve grilled dishes that are familiar to many, and made broth into espuma to top.
My teachers from cooking classes always told me that cooking is about serving with care and consideration. And in this sense, measures for improvement are giving us inspiration as well.
Q. You may have developed countless number of recipes. What is your favorite so far?
Jose likes the dish that translates into “Treasure Pouch of Red Bearded Captain.” When I suggested we name the dish “Bolso de Verano (Pouch of Summer),” Jose insisted we should name it treasure pouch of read bearded captain because pirates historically travelled from Caribbean to the Mediterranean Sea. Everybody believed him at first, but it turned out later that he was joking (laugh). But lobster, shrimp and grilled fish in pouch is packed with scents of the Mediterranean Sea and Jose commented that Velute sauce made with sea urchin – seafood that is often consumed in Valencia and Ibiza – tasted like Mediterranean summer.
My personal favorite is Tournedos Rossini. “Korean Beef Rossini” is an homage to my favorite dish, serving with pois gras, truffle, steak and sherry. It is a dish of wildness presented with feminine touch. Plating and presenting with sophistication, I feel always proud as a female chef. This is a plate of steak that comes from an inspiration from the sous chef’s favorite dishes back in the time spent in Spain. These were the dishes I can talk about, other than our signature, “Paella.”
Q. We should try each of these! It’s been half a year since you first opened. What has been the biggest challenges?
The infectious disease broke out the next the we opened that we had to shut town for the first month. It’s only been five months since we opened our door again. About the challenges…well…we didn’t have anything particular. Everybody was so friendly that we didn’t have issues. But we still have challenges in sourcing spices because some of them are difficult to find here in Korea. Most of spices are from Jose’s parents in Spain. But Jose is very strict about Paella. I am the one who make it in the kitchen, but Jose gave me some guidelines that I should keep up with. For instance, I should use only extra virgin olive oil from Valencia and try my best to use spices from Spain. These guidelines are giving me challenges to keep up with sometimes. And before the opening, I was concerned about hazing, but everybody in the neighborhood is so friendly and warm that I told myself I shouldn’t sorry at all.
Q. It’s good to hear that you haven’t faced many issues. Then can you tell us the images of L’estiu that you wish your customers would picture?
I always wish that our place smells like orange. It is one of my favorite fruits, as well as the symbol of Valencia. In the region, you can find orange trees even on streets. The fresh scents of green fruits in early summer makes me feel good. This may explain why we use a diffuser with fragrance of Valencian orange. Because I learned that scents and fragrances are directly and intuitively connected to memories, I wish that customers remember our restaurant as a place filled with scents of oranges.
Q. Could you tell us about your future plan?
It hasn’t been long since we first our restaurant. We hope we can welcome our guests for as many years as we can in Seochon.
Everything is too fast in Korea these days. I once believed Seochon wouldn’t be trend-savvy, but I have seen small shops pop up and then disappear all of sudden, and some parts of the neighborhood is too sensitive to what are “hip.” But in Spain, in contrast, there are some restaurants with over a century of history. Some people eat out in the same place every day, while some families are dining out in a certain place every weekend. And masters and artisans pass down special recipe and techniques for making cheese or cooking Paellas. We don’t necessarily look to pass our restaurant down to the next generation, but we would love to open for many years, welcoming customers with warmth, as if it has always been there.
INTERVIEW DATE / OCT 8, 2020
INTERVIEWEE / @lestiuseochon
INTERVIEWER / Won, Wan, Min