Meet Mingoo Kang, the chef expanding the possibilities of Korean cuisine

Kat Odell - 11/03/2021

Since opening celebrated restaurant Mingles in Seoul, South Korea, in 2014, Mingoo Kang has become one of the most respected chefs in the region. Despite the pandemic, Kang opened a new restaurant in Hong Kong in 2020 and has now been voted by his peers in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list as the winner of the Inedit Damm Chefs’ Choice Award 2021. We speak to the chef about introducing the world to Korean cuisine, his international expansion and what the latest opening means to him

“Korean food is just beginning to become known,” asserts Mingoo Kang, chef and owner of South Korea’s two Michelin-starred Mingles – the staple Seoul stop for global dining enthusiasts that claims the No.14 spot on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2020 list. Lauded for its forward-thinking approach to traditional Korean dishes, Kang himself is singlehandedly helping to spread the gospel on the beauty of his country’s cuisine.

Counting mentors like the godmother of Korean cookery, Cho Hee-sook (last year’s winner of Asia’s Best Female Chef), and Buddhist monk Jeongkwan – celebrated for her mastery of Korean temple cuisine – Kang admits that despite their influence on the food he’s serving today, earlier in his career he was lured abroad to the US and Spain to cook at Nobu and Martín Berasategui. It wasn’t until a few years after he returned home that he began to study traditional Korean cookery, and that’s when his current style – a contemporary outlook on long-established recipes – began to form.
Kang's dessert 'Jang trio'

Since Mingles’ launch in 2014, Kang has earned countless praise and accolades­, including this year’s Inedit Damm Chefs’ Choice Award, for his soulful Korean cooking. And despite a growing worldwide interest in jangs (a fermented soybean paste that boosts umami in various dishes) and soju, Kang admits that the food of his homeland offers many possibilities that are still unknown to most. So, he took it upon himself, despite a pandemic, to continue spreading the good word by launching a sophomore effort (and his first project outside of South Korea) in Hong Kong.

Hansik Goo hit the city’s buzzy Central district on June 1, 2020, and is a joint venture with local restaurant developer ZS Hospitality Group, responsible for Chinese-focused concepts like Miss Lee and two Michelin-starred Ying Jee Club. Kang reveals that Hong Kong was the first city to challenge and inspire him as a chef, and naturally it was his top choice for expansion.

“Hong Kong is open to food, and respects cultural diversity,” he asserts, adding that it’s also “one of the best gourmet cities in the world”.
Kang with Mingles general manager Minsung Kim

Divided between tables, booths and counter seating, Hansik Goo offers 51 seats within an earthy-hued, 2,200-square foot space decked out with glazed clay tiles, limestone and white oak; organic materials that pay tribute to nature and jive with Kang’s clean, minimalist cooking.

Keen to introduce fresh flavors to a city already awash with excellent Asian options, Kang settled on a concept that celebrates his take on the classic Korean recipes he ate growing up. He explains that Hansik Goo, which translates to ‘one family’ and suggests the idea of togetherness and shared meals, leans more on traditional Korean fare whereas Mingles, too, highlights heirloom Korean recipes, but with a contemporary approach. Kang felt foreign diners would better understand Korean flavours if he focused on authenticity.

Much like its name suggests, Hangsik Goo’s menu format ($880HKD) follows an eight-course set menu that celebrates one of the cornerstones of Korean culinary culture: the authentic, family-style dining experience. He describes it as Korean ‘comfort food’, but take that with a grain of salt. Because while one will find essential dishes like janchi guksu, an anchovy broth-laced Korean noodle dish typically offered during special occasions, and sujeonggwa, a classic cold cinnamon tea that Kang re-envisioned into a plated dessert, there’s also a pine nut, barley, and crab porridge that one can spike with a supplemental bump of caviar.
Kang's dish 'black chicken'

But that’s the point: to make unsung Korean dishes better-known to the general public, and more approachable. So, if listing caviar as a menu option lures in more diners (Kang noted that diners in Hong Kong are interested in more formal dining experiences), or if describing a dish on the menu as “risotto”– despite the fact that it’s a combination of two quintessential Korean dishes (ginseng chicken soup and Korean fried chicken) – then he has succeeded in finding the gateway drug to introduce more dining enthusiasts to a world of food he believes is largely overlooked. Until now.

Kang says that the traditional Korean cuisine he grew up eating is what he cooks best. He adds, “It’s what I want to introduce to the world.”

Meet chef Mingoo Kang in the video:

Images by: Choi Joon Ho

The ninth edition of the 
Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, will be revealed on Thursday, 25th March, through a digital awards show on Facebook and YouTube. To stay up to date with the latest news and announcements, follow us on Instagram, like us on Facebook, find us on Twitter #Asias50Best and subscribe to our YouTube channel.