(This article appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Eunji Lee was just 17 when she constructed the most important menu of her life. Not yet the pastry chef she longed to become, Lee described in great detail the career path she was taking and the rationale behind it for her preferred vocation. Granted, her father, Lee Keun-kab, and mother, Kim Young-jae, had always been supportive parents and wonderful examples to their daughter, imparting the fascination for art and the value of vigilant study – after all, they met at university – but they rather hoped Eunji would continue her traditional education, perhaps to become a doctor, and not subject herself to the unforgiving rigors of a kitchen. Still, this was no hastily-scribbled listing of daily provisions; in fact, it read more like a 20-course feast than a snack. It was a lucid, structured, 10-year plan with times, places and target milestones, including study in France or Japan, in kitchens big and small. “They realized if they managed to stop me,” she recalls, “some day in the future, I would die with regret. I wanted more challenge.”
By the end of the presentation, the tasting menu of ambition and determination had won over her two most fervent supporters. The clincher might have been the declaration: “I want to be one of the best in the world.” It was a confit of confidence, ready to be opened at a moment’s doubt or dissuasion.
So, it may seem a far cry from being a spirited teenager in Busan, Korea to being an acclaimed pastry chef who offers a five-course dessert tasting at Michelin-starred Jungsik Restaurant in New York, but if you ask Lee if she could ever have imagined taking such a journey, she shrugs and says, “Yes, it was like my plan.” Yup, to reach the moon, you have to point your telescope in the right direction and hold tight to the viewfinder.
In fact, a younger Eunji had already caught whiffs of artistic satisfaction in a local park, where mom and dad used to take their daughter to paint. The parents would pull out the markers and start to draw. Lee was surrounded by games, colors and shapes. While the local boys might be fetching balls, Eunji was sketching them. The result might have been simple, but Eunji reveled in her parents’ affirming nods. “I like to create something that would make them smile,” she says.
But would she commit the creative bent to canvas? Text? Instrumentals? The answer popped onto her television screen when she was 14. Lee doesn’t recall the name of the show, but a documentary about the life of a pastry chef left her transfixed, her ambitions transformed. “This is it,” she declared. “It is my future, my dream.” It took three more years to present that menu to her concerned parents.
In 2006, before Lee began her study in France, she sprinted through a four-month immersion of French. She read books, studied films and paid special attention to eccentricities of kitchen-centric vocabulary. Want to flub your way through with just “bon appetit?” Well, bon chance!
In between studies at the prestigious cooking schools Intitut National de la Boulangerie in Rouen, and Ecole Ferrandi in Paris, Lee talked her way into a job at a bakery in Strasbourg after they initially told her they didn’t hire foreigners. She then spent three years training under William Ledeuil at Paris’ Michelin-starred Ze Kitchen Galerie. Though schooled, himself, in the French classics, the butcher’s son drew inspiration from Thailand, India, Japan, Vietnam, creating what he called “tasteful melodies,” a perfect fit for Lee, who liked to season her creations with a pinch of art and some zest of spice. Ledeuil also liked incorporating citrus and other fruits into his savory dishes, giving Lee an inkling for how to blur sweet and savory lines of concoction.
At Kitchen Galerie, Lee was both the only pastry person and only female working in a kitchen whose testosterone-filled environment and geometric limitations tested her resolve with 17-hour days. The restaurant required 50 dessert services for lunch, and another 150 for dinner. Lee’s dedicated space was a single compartment and the bottom half of a dual fridge that sat in front of a fellow chef. Each time she opened the door, she had to say “pardon” and reach down to the ground to open it. For heavy items, she sometimes got on her knees while her colleague impatiently towered above her, waiting for her to move out of his way. “It built a strong character,” she says. So too, did the scattering of vocabulary endemic to an otherwise male sanctuary and not often taught in books. “I learned a lot of not good words,” she says. “I was the small Asian girl, so I became tough. But my chef also supported me. I really learned how to organize, prep quickly, create a menu, make relationships with vendors, play with ingredients. He trusted me.”
The jack-of-all-trades job at Kitchen Galerie fulfilled one side of Lee’s balanced plan of learning. As she told a demonstration class at New York’s esteemed Institute of Culinary Education in February, “It is important for development to take at least a year to work with not much help, so you have many responsibilities. When you go to a Michelin kitchen, you can only touch one thing. That is good for technique, but a kitchen is [chaos]. At some point, you need to be in the middle of that.”
Though the heavy obligations at Galerie helped Lee cast a net for ideas, she also wanted to refine technique, and felt the need to balance the scales between creativity and structure. Would she be a shark in a backyard pool or a guppy in an ocean? A bit of both. “As time passed,” she says, “I felt the limits of my pastry skills. I wanted to grow up technically.”
She went on to work for four years at three-Michelin-starred Le Meurice, a storied hotel-restaurant that once renovated an entire floor for Queen Victoria, and later so enchanted Salvador Dali that he called it home on his extended Parisian holidays. For four years, Lee trained under Pastry Chef Cedric Grolet, who would go on to be named World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2018, and culinary royalty Alain Ducasse, so known for precision that rumor had it he once called Big Ben to make a timing correction.
Indeed, Lee touched fewer elements at Le Meurice, but she honed the meticulous touch that honored the expression her parents encouraged her to embrace. After four years, she graduated to the next bold step in a place that had always fascinated her. “I had been to New York twice,” she says. “It just made me want to create and to live something special. Paris closed early. New York never closed.”
Lee accepted a position as Pastry Chef at the restaurant Jungsik, a play on words that means “formal dinner” in Korean and is also the name of the chef and proprietor, Jungsik Yim (Koreans would say Yim Jung-sik). It was the first Korean restaurant in the U.S. to receive two Michelin stars, and it was hardly your grandfather’s bowl of kimchi. This tasting menu format featured caviar, Wagyu beef and fois gras. It was up to Lee to complement that.
After surviving the French kitchens, Lee was armed and ready for Gotham. (Do not mess with the lady who has an offset spatula in one hand and a spray gun in the other.) Though Lee’s school English studies got her an excellent head start on the local lingo, directions for the sprawling New York subway system may as well have been written in iambic Swahili. Lee pantomimes one story that repeated itself in her early days at the restaurant when she would take an express train past her local destination. As Lee recalls, slowly swiveling her head in defeat. “Every day I’d say, ‘There . . . goes . . . my . . . stop.’”
For those who knew both Lee and the New York subway system, there was additional irony. Her bypassed stop was, in fact, Franklin Street on the city’s No. 1 local line. Two years ago, to mark the passing of soul legend Aretha Franklin, the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority replaced several large Franklin signs with the word “Respect,” the title of Franklin’s greatest hit . . . and for narrative purposes, it was also the theme that would require additional persistence for Lee to reach on both her subway journey and career journey. (“All she’s askin’ is for . . .”)
At Jungsik’s bar area these days, patrons can sample Lee’s seasonal five-course menu that goes from palate cleansing pre-dessert to an optional powerhouse supplement. Also in the customary lineup are a fruit tart, a signature dish, a main and several petits fours at the end. Lee’s desserts generally get their sweetness from fruit rather than sugar. All are refreshing, with transforming blends of Korean ingredients, French technique and American flavors. Says Lee, “I try to empty all my imagination from my little pocket.” (Fair warning: Lee uses fish gelatin in many of her desserts, so while pescatarian-friendly, most are not actually vegetarian.)
On this night, the opening act is called Su Jeong Gwa, a Korean tea made without leaves that packs a punch of cinnamon with dried persimmon and ginger. The lead actor is the pear, appearing in three costumes: sorbet, Comice pear and compote, all concentrated in a light broth you really want to savor. “When you taste it, I want you to feel the fruit,” Lee says. Actually, you want to pull a stem out from your forehead when you’re done.
Next comes omija tea, made from dried magnolia berries that represents five flavors (sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, pungency). In Korean medicine, each taste is connected to a different part of the body.
Lee utilizes Korean chile paste (gochugaru) for a cream in an apple tatin that sits next to a caramel infused with Lapsang Suchong, a black tea that is traditionally smoke-dried over pinewood fires. The smoky backnote of pine against the Honeycrisp apple makes you drift into the woods, where you might long to pick more apples for the teacher. Or how about the pastry chef? Other desserts might feature soy jam, variants of yuzu or brown rice used to make either ice cream or the choux of a Paris Brest, an unfamiliar twist on something familiar.
Even as some offerings change, Lee is best-known for her signature creation. In Korea, a growing appetite for banana desserts was already popular in the U.S., if almost non-existent in Europe. To satisfy that preference, Lee created the baby banana dessert. Cloaked in playful mischief and dipped in white chocolate, it arrives disguised as its name. But the simple banana visage is a fake-out for something more complex and yummier that takes three days to create. On day one, Lee makes a blond exterior by using 50 percent of yellow-colored Valrhona white chocolate and cocoa butter infused with vanilla bean. She also makes a Bailey’s-infused banana cake and a banana cremeux filling by blending milk, cream and overripe bananas.
The next day, she whips Dulcey cream and pipes it into a mold she created by pouring silicone over actual baby bananas. She then pipes the banana cremeux on top and presses a small slice of cake into the cremeux, before adding a final layer of cream and placing the mold into a freezer.
On day three, she dips the bananas into the white chocolate-cocoa butter that starts at 32 degrees Celsius (89 degrees F) and dries quickly to create a shell. She soon spray-paints milk chocolate onto the item to give it a shade of yellow that befits a banana. She then uses her fingers to add cocoa powder to the edges and parts of the top to create a realistic ripened look. She serves it with coffee ice cream and first places the confection into a fruit basket where it plays hide-and-seek among the apples and oranges in front of confused diners. “I use that animation to make more interaction with guests,” Lee says. “Sometimes customers want to take the apple. I have to tell them, ‘no, no, please take the banana.’” One almost expects to see the disguised dessert, itself, carrying a trench coat and holding a magnifying glass. But, Great Scott, Watson, it’s good. And the entire process is searchable on the web, since, as with most clever recipes, intellectual property has the shelf life of a baby banana. She also uses other molds to make desserts that imitate chestnuts and sourdough bread.
Lee’s finale – optional with supplement – is an ode to both Willy Wonka and wonky wordplay for those who took a while to grasp that a chocolate truffle wasn’t actually the kind Porky sniffed from the earth. (Admit it: Your younger self once thought a chocolate mousse had antlers.) Prepare for renewed confusion as truffle bumps up against truffle and collision control yields a delightful composite confection meant to seem a seasonal sprout. Meet the not-so-trifle Truffle Cone. The result, as Lee puts it, is “kind of a sexy dessert.”
In a pot one would use for a small plant, Lee covers chocolate coverture with ganache and cacao nibs to create an image of plant dirt in the pot. In a chocolate cone that she infuses with truffle juice, she layers vanilla ice cream mixed with truffle shavings atop one truffle slice. Then she adds layers of truffle cream, chocolate caramel, another truffle slice and more ice cream. The top layer is a third truffle slice sprinkled with fleur de sel. She forms a branch by using Valrhona’s dark chocolate Caribe and wraps it around the cone. There, welcome to the forest, Jane and Tarzan. Start swinging.
In the cone, one sees the imagination first spawned in the park with her parents and then hard-earned over hours of standing and striving to bring disharmonious shapes and flavors into lovely harmonies. As complex as they are, their acquaintance somehow feels fun and accessible more than forced. Lee’s desserts, just as her professional journey, do not arrive on a silver platter.
*Photos credit: Alexa Bendeck, Dan Ahn
Brian Cazeneuve is an author and former staff writer at Sports Illustrated who never lost his childhood passion for chocolate. In fact, he and his wife Caroline spent their honeymoon on a three-month chocolate-themed tour through Europe.