A Taste of Home: Chef Olivia Lee’s Go-To Restaurants in South Korea
South Korean celebrity chef Olivia Lee's love for food and delicious things started at an early age, leading her to study at Switzerland’s DCT International Hotel & Business Management School (now known as the Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland).
Afterwards, she earned her stripes working at established restaurants across the world, including two-Michelin-starred establishment Le Meurice by Yannick Alléno in Paris, France. In fact, one of the many highlights in her career is the title of South Korea's first female chef at Dubai's iconic Burj Al Arab.
Now based in Singapore with her husband, Sebastian Lepinoy of three-Michelin-starred Les Amis, Lee runs SoGoodK, an online purveyor of premium Korean products ranging from fresh produce, ingredients and Korean tipples such as makgeolli and soju.
Part of her job includes travelling to her home country regularly, meeting with farmers and producers and bringing their best harvest to Singapore. But that proved to be difficult during the last two years because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Now that the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) to South Korea will open up on November 14, Lee can't help but share with Tatler Dining Singapore her best dining experiences in South Korea.
When was your last trip to Korea? How did you spend your holiday there
Olivia Lee (OL): My last trip was in October last year. I went to South Korea for a business trip, as I hadn’t been there for over two years due to Covid-19. I had not seen my family for such a long time, so I decided to bring my daughter along.
I spent most of my days visiting farms all over Korea—Dam-yang for strawberries, Sang-ju for shine muscat grapes, Chung-do for dried persimmons, Busan for Kimchi, and Ha-nam to visit our Ganjang Gejang factory. In between work commitments, I planned a winter beach trip for my daughter and my family at Muchang-po.
What do you miss most on the food/drink front when you are away from home or haven’t been back for a while?
OL: Before I launched my ganjang gejang (fresh raw crabs), this was one of the dishes I craved most when I was away from home. I also missed the selection of yak-ju (Korean rice wine) that was not easily accessible in Singapore. Hence, I collaborated with Anju restaurant to bring in a curation of my favourite Korean liquors, so my customers have easy access to these delicacies.
Read more: 15 of the Best Asian Gins to Drink Right Now
If you have visitors/guests with you, where do you ensure you always go to give them a real taste of Korea?
OL: When I have guests in South Korea, I often bring them to Black Pork Barbecue Restaurant in Jeju. Eating Korean barbecue with soju is the most authentic Korean experience you’ll get.
What are your favourite heritage dishes and where are some of the places you go to find them?
OL: One of my favourite heritage dishes is tteok-galbi (beef short rib patties); it's a royal dish made with minced beef short ribs that goes well with bamboo rice. This dish is nostalgic as my mum used to make this for me when I was younger.
You can get the best tteok-galbi in Dam-yang, where it is well known. There are many places there where you can get it with bamboo rice; a plus factor is you'll see the chefs preparing the dishes and mincing the beef in front of the stores.
What is the first dish you eat when you return to Korea and where do you go for it?
OL: The first dish I always eat when I land in Korea is ganjang gejang. I always head to my favourite place, Ilmi Ganjang Gejang restaurant, in Seoul. I always take my business partners and foreign friends there to enjoy a delicious, authentic meal of soy sauce marinated crabs.
Do you have a favourite restaurant in Korea? For fine dining and for more casual experiences?
OL: A few of my favourite fine dining restaurants include Layeon, Mingles, and Jungsik. I enjoy introducing these places to my guests. For a more casual night out, we'll head to the eateries at the Noryangjin fishery wholesale night market to take a look at the huge selection of seafood from all over Korea. One of my top picks there is Yoojung Sikdang, where we can enjoy the best in-season seafood and soju.
Where do you like to meet up with your old friends for food/drinks
OL: Most of my friends back home are chefs, and we often visit newly-opened trendy restaurants and bars. We also enjoy going to traditional bars and older restaurants from the 70s for a more laidback experience.
In case you missed it: A Taste of Home: Naeum Chef and Founder Louis Han on His Favourite Meals in Seoul
Is there anywhere else that you never miss visiting when you are back?
OL: Korean farms are a place I never miss when I am back home. Checking on the quality and consistency of our products is extremely important to me. The farmers' bounty of produce are gifts from the land, and I highly respect them.
What do you always take back to Singapore with you when you leave Korea?
OL: I love bringing back unique jewellery and clothing because I am a fan of the new generation Korean designers. Their designs are not easily accessible in Singapore, so I often bring back some of their exclusive pieces. Many of the food items I used to bring back to Singapore are now available on SoGoodK.
Where do you go to find authentic flavours of home where you live?
OL: I was born and raised in Daejeon, famous for its spicy noodle soup, stir fried tofu, and seok galbi, a tenderised beef dish cooked with onions and mushrooms. An authentic dish of seok galbi can be found at Tti-wool restaurant, while a delicious dish of spicy noodle soup and stir fried tofu can be found at Kwangcheonseik-dang restaurant!