Visionary pastry chef mastering the art of indulgence in tune with the seasons
Photo by Matty Kim
From the time she lived in Busan, South Korea, when Eunji Lee dreamed about one day being a pastry chef, to becoming the Executive Pastry Chef of the two-Michelin starred restaurant Jungsik in New York City, there was a decade of hard work in France in between. She joined the Institut National de Boulangerie Pâtisserie in Rouen, followed by the prestigious pastry school Ferrandi before landing in the Michelin-starred Asian French fusion, Ze Kitchen Galerie with Chef William Ledeuil. As she wanted to focus on Pastry, she joined the Hôtel Le Meurice where she worked directly with Pastry Chef Cédric Grolet.
Later on, when New York was calling, Lee decided it was time for change. She became Executive Pastry Chef at the modern Korean restaurant, Jungsik, where she’s now expressing her art, passion and expertise in a brilliant five-course dessert tasting menu inspired by her Korean heritage mixed with traditional French technique, sprinkled with some New York flair. Advocating the use of seasonal fruit when it's at its best, Lee creates her menu according to the seasons. As a Pastry Chef of one of the most renowned fine dining restaurants in the city that never sleeps, it would seem that her childhood dream has come true.
Today, she shares with us her passion and vision, from South Korea, where she returned during the pandemic to pursue her art while Jungsik in New York is closed.
Welcome Eunji Lee to Chefs for Impact!
By Eunji Lee as told to Chefs for Impact
What led you to working in a two-Michelin starred restaurant in New York City?
I was born and raised in South Korea. After high school, I decided to move to France to pursue my dream of becoming a pastry chef. I spent 10 years there studying, working hard and learning from the best. In 2016, I got an amazing opportunity to move to New York to be an Executive Pastry Chef at the two-Michelin starred restaurant Jungsik. I was offered a position of sous-chef in Hôtel Le Meurice at the exact same time. I hesitated for a while, then I took the decision to go on the New York adventure.
As soon as I joined Jungsik, I wanted to offer my own version of desserts combining my Korean heritage and my French pastry skills and knowledge. To be able to do this in New York, one of my favorite cities and also one of the busiest and most diverse cities in the world, represented a huge challenge in my career as a Pastry chef.
How do you imagine the post-coronavirus restaurant being like ?
It will take a long time to heal and we will see a lot of changes for sure. I think contactless service, super strict hygiene protocol, increasing delivery service volume and reducing restaurant capacity will become the new normal. Sadly, fine dining restaurants are having a very difficult time to pivot to takeout and delivery. It is challenging for us because there's a whole host of things to consider. For instance, it's very hard to control the quality. We are so used to last minute cooking, plating and serving. But we will get through all of this eventually. I am trying to remain positive.
How is the restaurant industry doing in South Korea right now?
People still wear masks all the time, they wash their hands more often, and there are hand sanitizers everywhere. There are body temperatures checks in any building you enter and any place you go. People must check-in and leave their name and contact to ease people tracking. Restaurants have reopened, applying the exact same rules including spacing the tables in such a way as to allow the necessary social distancing. All the employees have to wear masks, even in the kitchen which isn't easy at all. Life in South Korea is almost back to normal but is this normal?
What are your best practices for a more sustainable gastronomy?
I think the most important thing that we should never forget, is to serve the best quality of food to our customers. Our goal is to make people happy and satisfied with our food. My pastry philosophy is really to use seasonal fruits during their peak season. That way, I have the best quality and most importantly, the best flavor. As a result, my dessert menu varies according to the season.
What dessert best reflects that philosophy?
My desserts are like my babies and they are so meaningful. The Seasonal fruit tart from our dessert tasting menu is definitely the dessert that reflects my philosophy the most. Recently I had a beautiful delicious "wild strawberry tart" representing the Spring season and featuring wild strawberry from Malaga, Spain, honey cream, strawberry jam & juice, and aloe Vera sorbet.
Photo by @DanAhn
Learn more about Jungsik: http://jungsik.com/