Chef You Heeyoung, founder of Unochubo restaurant, shares his secrets to perfecting fusion recipes.
In 1999, chef You Heeyoung was getting weary of repetitively creating Japanese dishes at a hotel in Seoul. At that time, Japanese cuisine seemed a little outdated against newly introduced cuisines in Korea, such as Thai, Vietnamese and Mongolian. He believed there was a need for a more sophisticated and elegant version of Japanese cuisine.
While it wasn’t easy, his gradual integrations of Japanese ingredients into other cuisines to create dishes, such as sashimi salads and steak marinated in Japanese sauce, marked the beginning of his passion for fusion food.
But out of the many cuisines, chef You focused mainly on marrying Korean and Japanese food on a single plate. The reason was simple: it was the easiest. The comfort of his birthplace and expertise in Japanese cuisine along with the close proximity between the two countries meant the marriage wouldn’t be forced.
“Fusion food shouldn’t be complicated if you want to give the customer an enjoyable experience not just in taste but also in the heart,” says You.
The difference between the two cuisines, however, lies in the process. Korean cuisine emphasised on storage foods such as fermented bean paste, kimchi and salted fish using various spices to enhance their rich flavours. On the other hand, Japanese cuisine placed more importance on the raw ingredient itself, developing dishes to express their natural flavours.
“Fresh ingredients and seasoning? It brings out the best of both worlds, really,” You says. “However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The inspiration that comes from dreams is not always realised in reality.”
In order to make it a reality, You goes through five steps in creating his fusion recipe. First, he researches the trends and identifies the demands of the public. With potential customers in mind, he then chooses a theme for the new menu, meticulously checking the price, and supply of the ingredients. Then only does he proceed to sketch in his notebook to narrow down the different ways to create dishes. Once the menu is refined, he purchases ingredients to experiment with the recipe and doesn’t stop until it’s the perfect dish.
“It’s all about the right balance. Adding or subtracting an ingredient and even a tablespoon of seasoning makes a big difference. And this keeps me on my toes to carry on my food experiments.”
This balance can be felt in all of his dishes as he doesn’t fail to overlook one cuisine over the other. His Agedashi tofu with clam meat for example, takes the classic Japanese hot tofu dish and smothers it in spicy seasoning and then stir-fried for a Korean twist. Other dishes such as the pork neck hobayaki and garlic steak are well-received among the public as well.
“What makes fusion food so attractive, I believe, is the fun in it. It’s fun to find the harmony between ingredients and sauces, creating dishes with unorthodox methods so far. This kind of fun draws out curiosity from our customers.”
Sensibly, You accepts that not all fusion food is guaranteed a success. Some conservative customers often perceive the cuisine as a lack of tradition, merely a joke. Nevertheless, he believes with time, this perception can be changed.
His passion has led him to open Unochubo outlets across Korea. His restaurants, which means “Your kitchen”, embrace the concept of a gallery-like kitchen, enabling guests to see, hear and smell the food as its being prepared.
This year, You opened Unochubo’s first international outpost along Singapore’s Killiney Road. He quotes the ingrained sense of culture; flexibility in setting the price; accessibility of trade and distribution; and above all, the openness of the local people as reasons for choosing Singapore as a place to operate his business.
In terms of future plans, You has none at the moment but simply hopes to share his passion for fusion food with the locals and for them to truly enjoy the experience.
He says: “If I could describe what fusion food is to me in one word, it would be power (動力), the power that makes me move.”