Benjamin Joinau

You have been observing Korean culture and food for a long time. What do you think have changed?
It is unquestionably true that Korea has changed drastically in the last 20 years. From my perspective, everything about Korea was new and wonderful when it was for me an undiscovered world 22 years ago. Korea is now very familiar to me and I am somewhere between a stranger and a Korean. Korean food has become so popular because of various factors, but I personally don’t think it has become tastier. Seoul’s popular foods, in particular, have lost their quality. My palate has changed, of course, but the tastes of my favorite foods are not how they used to be. It is probably because the restaurants have been run by entrepreneurs, and they use more chemical seasonings and imported kimchi, instead of homemade soy sauce and old-fashioned soy paste. This is a pessimistic diagnosis, though there is hope that it may improve as more people have become interested in organic food, slow food, and homemade food.

Can you explain why commercial food is poorer in quality?
The popular places, such as Hongdae, Samcheongdong, and Garosugil, are filled with foods that come in generous servings for a cheap price, and are easy to make. These venues are ruled by ‘trends’ and ‘standardization,’ targeting younger customers who dominate the market. All the dishes target a certain generation with a massproducing culture that is characterized by superficiality and a lack of depth. It is regretful that this is leading to lower quality in the overall culture, and not just concerning food. It is sad that even culture is merchandised. Therefore, we need to approach the problem from the view of ‘cultural management.’

If you are not very fond of the changes in Seoul, do you think timeless beauty still exists?
I was deeply impressed by Jeongseon, Gangwon-do, but I can’t forget the small villages in Jeolla-do, whose traditional culture in its beautiful, natural settings has survived. The food there has not yet been commercialized. I have visited them while hosting a Korean food show on Arirang TV.

Were you interested in food before coming to Korea? Please explain the difference between French cuisine and Korean cuisine.
I am from Bordeaux, so I was more interested in wine than I was in food. Before I was asked to write a food column, which I did not expect at all, I had no idea I would open a restaurant in Korea, and work on TV and study food at the same time. I am still working with food probably because food is a big part of Anthropology. It is hard to state in one word, but French cuisine can be explained by ‘gastronomy’ and ‘class.’ Noble food is clearly different from peasant food. On the other hand, Korean food was not widely influenced by noble food, deriving its influence from many peasant dishes that are graded by class. If you are asking me to talk about the food in Seoul today, I would say that the food in the eight provinces has been mixed with foreign food from the U.S., Italy, France, and so on. I am not saying it’s bad, but it’s evolving into a new cuisine. Food is not a relic. It is a living thing that changes all the time. Moreover, I think rural food must be nurtured first before reinterpreting royalty food to globalize Korean cuisine.

I heard that you even made Korean sauces yourself.
I used to when I had a house in Yangpyeong, but it’s no longer possible today because I am based in Seoul. I made soy sauce and soy paste with the help of some elderly women, but I did so because, as a researcher, I was interested in the basics of Korean food. My acquaintances liked my kimchi and makgeolli better than my sauces.

What is your most unforgettable memory while living in Korea?
How could I pick just one thing when each day is filled with countless episodes? I get questions like these from time to time because I am a foreigner, but words like ‘most’ can be stressful. Some celebrities tell again and again the same anecdotes to hide behind a mask, but I don’t want to be one of them. The most unforgettable memory may be created tomorrow.

Novelist Han Gang’s ‘Man Booker Prize’ has shown us the importance of translation. How do you view translation?
I have run a publishing house named ‘Atelier des Cahiers’ in France for 15 years, and I am engaged in various translation jobs. I have published the translated works of Korean authors, including Dong In Kim, Jin Gun Hyun, Wan Suh Park, and Hee Gyung Eun, into French, and published books that introduce Korean cartoons and culture like <Sketches of Korea>. It is not easy, but I have no intention to quit.

What do you do in your free time, and what are your plans for the future?
Work is my healing method. There is a fine line between my work and my private life. This is more a wish than a plan, but I want to concentrate on the purpose of my job than on the quantity. I want to take a step back, and cut back on the work to be able to concentrate on writing, which I think is most important for me now.