Earlier today I watched the episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, featuring the Korean Buddhist Nun, Jeong Kwan.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with Kwan, here’s a very short intro. At the age of 17 she presented herself at the entrance to a buddhist monastery and asked to be ordained as a nun. Ever since she has lived at Baekyangsa Temple, 169 miles south of Seoul, and in addition to spending many many hours every day in meditation, she takes care of all the meals. She came to global prominence after Michelin starred chef Eric Ripert met her during his research trip to Korea. That was back in 2014, and Ripert has since brought her to New York to cook for the city’s foodie elite. It’s been said that her food is ‘life changing’, and on a par with the food being created at any of the world’s top restaurants today.
As I watched the episode, I became aware that I was yearning for the bit where we are offered something concrete from her repertoire – just one complete recipe maybe, or a close up of one of her gentle and elaborate techniques. How long did she ferment her kimchi for, and what exactly are those spices that she says are essential? But nothing was offered other than serene images of her tending her garden, adding the finishing touches to a lotus flower tea, or talking in the most compassionate and respectful terms about her parents.
Sixty-year old Kwan says she is not a chef, she is a monk. I would say she is a pretty advanced practitioner! She clearly has a natural instinct for cooking, but I’m also sure that her altruistic motivation and joyful spontaneity contribute something very precious to the meals.
After the episode ended, I was left feeling incredible calm and nourished. It no longer mattered that I didn’t have the recipe for her fried shiitake dish that literally allowed her father to pass to the next life in complete peace.
Oddly, the first thing I wanted to do was clean my bedroom, sweep the floor, and put some fresh flowers in a vase. For supper, (I realised I wasn’t especially hungry anyway) I had one, freshly-laid, free-range egg, hard boiled, which I peeled and ate with my fingers, dipping it into a tiny pile of sea salt and toasted sesame seeds. It occurred to me then, that it’s highly likely that she doesn’t actually have any recipes – she just creates what she senses the monks and the guests need for their wellbeing, based on what’s available. Which is exactly what cooking should be about.
I highly recommend checking out the documentary (she features in season 3, episode 1). I hope it inspires, calms and grounds you, and orientates you to what is most nourishing.