K-Drama: Gourmet

Gourmet:    Well acted.  A storyline that I found interesting, and characters I liked- especially the lead actor.   Not my top ten, but definitely the top twenty.  Might even be number 15.
Who would like this:

If you like to read cookbooks, are interested in food in general and Korean food in particular, you’ll love this.

If you like the actor Kim Rae-Won, you’ll love it- he’s fantastic. I loved the way he just seemed to naturally live in his character’s skin.
If you like dramas where the romance is light and there’s almost no kissing (or anything else), this is a good one. It’s almost squeaky clean (two exceptions, and I don’t think they are that huge, below).

If you like dramas centered around family relationships, conflicts, and resolutions, this is a good one.

Who should not watch this:
Vegetarians and Vegans. Seriously. Don’t even try it. More below.
Short attention spans. It’s 24 episodes long, and it’s not really fast paced since it’s not an action drama, it’s a food drama.  I am in the short attention span camp and usually I prefer 16 episodes, but I love to read cookbooks and I really like Kim Rae-Won, both as an actor and particularly as this character, but I think if you don’t read cookbooks for fun, this is going to be a little slow at times.
If you crave strong romantic stories with lots of chemistry and ‘skinship’ and can’t be happy without it, this one will disappoint you.


Main characters:

Korean Food– featured in every episode, in detail with close up shots, mood music, and descriptions that will have you licking your lips and wishing for some Korean food. It will make your mouth water even when you have no idea how it tastes. In fact, in some cases it makes you drool and have a craving for a nibble even when you do know exactly how something tastes because you ate it in Korea and you also know you don’t have the palate to appreciate it, but it still looks so good on screen and the descriptions are so tantalizing that you want to try it again just in case you were wrong and that little incident about setting your tongue on fire and melting your tonsils so you couldn’t taste anything else for a week was just a silly misunderstanding between you and the spicy chili paste.

Choi Bool-am as Oh Sook-soo (left), the aging head chef, restaurant owner and CEO (although there is a board of directors as well), father of the two brothers our story is about, descendant of the last chef to serve a Korean king.

Kwon Oh-joong as Oh Bong-joo, (above) the older, more responsible brother. He was 14 when his father brought home an orphaned boy and told him this was his new brother, but he and his new little brother have been very close.  You learn about their connection via backstory flashbacks and the photographs little bro has in his room.

Kim Rae-won as Lee Sung-chan,(above) the younger brother. He has always idolized his big brother, although that hasn’t stopped him from being something of a rapscallion and troublemaker in his high school years. We don’t really know the details of his trouble-making youth, we just hear about it in remarks from the elders about how much trouble he caused, and from the resentment of one of the chef’s who has known him since their school days. He’s no longer quite the trouble maker he used to be, but is instead following in his father’s and brother’s footsteps in the kitchen.

Nam Sang-mi as Kim Jin-soo– (above) aspiring food critic. She meets Sung-Chan when she’s in Seoul looking for work at a food magazine. They meet again later when she’s traveling with his brother while working on a story for the magazine. And then they continue to connect.  Cute, tenacious, warm hearted, and nosy, all good traits for a food reporter to have.

Kim So-yeon as Yoon Joo-hee-(above) she’s the amazingly efficient, knowledgeable, capable, and beautiful manager, secretary, and executive assistant for the restaurant. Her father is on the board of directors. He’s a renowned potter who makes special plates and dishware for the restaurant as well. It’s assumed by everybody except possibly her that she’s going to marry Bong Joo, although she never really fully explains her feelings to anybody. I’m not sure she knows what they are for certain.  Honestly, I found her character extremely aggravating. She causes a lot of unnecessary heart-ache and trouble by never actually explaining anything. The majority of her ‘lines’ are her just saying “Bong Joo-shi!” in tones varying from exasperation to indignation, to sadness, or affection, and then just leaving the room with a sigh instead of bothering to tell him what she’s thinking.

Won Ki-joon as Min-woo,(above) one of the kitchen chefs, Bong Joo’s sidekick and devoted lackey, overly ambitious, highly resentful of Sung Chan’s success in the kitchen.  Although this shot shows him with a pretty smile, mostly he sneers.

There are various other characters, including a very quirky and fun old chef, and lots of estranged fathers and children who overcome their estrangement thanks to Sung Chan and his cooking.

Basic Story

Oonamjeong is an elegant and world renowned Korean restaurant with a long and noble tradition.  Its owner and head-chef is a descendant of  the imperial chefs who attended the emperor.  He has two sons, both also chefs, as their elderly father has left the kitchen mainly in charge of his firstborn and only biological child, Bong Joo- Father is still the boss, and does make a specialty dish from time to time (wowing the boys with his skills every time) and he is still teaching and training his sons, but Bong Joo heads the kitchen from day to day, and Sung Chan is one of the junior chefs in the large kitchen.

The older brother is Bong Joo (Kwon Oh-joong).  Sung Chan (Kim Rae-won) is younger by, I think somewhere between 2 and 4 years, although that’s never fully clear.  Sung Chan was adopted when Bong Joo was 14, but they are very close.  Sung Chan really loves and looks up to his Hyung, and Bong Joo is an affectionate and tolerant older bro- until….

Father decides to really retire and leave Oonamjeong to a successor, only that successor is not automatically going to be Bong Joo, as he and everybody else assumed.  Dad announces a cooking contest and says he will leave the restaurant to anybody who can win the contest. There are to be three cooking challenges.  This can’t go well, obviously.  To make matters even harder, it turns out that Bong Joo has always been a dutiful, obedient son, while we hear that Sung Chan, while good natured and loved by his family, was wild and reckless when growing up, often getting into scrapes (Min Woo is one of his enemies in the kitchen, a chef who has known him since school days, and he insists Sung Chan is no better than a gangster, but I think that’s because he always lost to Sung Chan).  Sung Chan refused to learn anything about cooking until just a few years ago.  Contrast this with dutiful oldest son Bong Joo, who has been devoting himself to learning the craft since he was 15 years old.

At first Sung Chan refuses to enter because he feels bad for his older brother.  That’s likely the decision he should have stuck with, but then we wouldn’t have a drama.  But their father really pressures him to enter, and then Min Woo taunts Sung Chan and goes ahead and enters (even though he’s Bong Joo’s devoted lackey).   I think Sung Chan’s own still somewhat immature, rash, reckless, and competitive nature gets the best of him, and he joins the other two in this competition for their father’s inheritance.  Father does have his reasons and they do present quite an ethical conundrum for him, but still.  I could see this sort of thing was necessary for the conflict that had to happen to drive the show, but it also seemed artificial.  I could not see any good reason for not telling  these reasons to the family, or at least to Bong Joo sooner (the father does explain later why he didn’t tell the younger boy sooner, and that made sense, but it was not a good reason for Bong Joo to have been left in the dark for so long).   I had very little sympathy for the father’s subsequent heart-ache, feeling he brought it all on himself, and, unfortunately,on  the boys, too.

So now we have a prodigal son story, only in this case, the prodigal son was adopted when elder brother was already 14, and dad isn’t just dividing the inheritance, he’s planning on giving it all away to the younger brother who has never been as well behaved as the older bro.  You really can’t blame Bong Joo, at least at first,  for his fury and resentment, although he tries to hold it down for a little bit.

However, something happens that breaks his ability to hold it in, the brothers have a huge fight in the middle of the night.  In the heat of discussion hurtful things are said that should never be said. Sung Chan runs to their father to tell him he won’t be in the contest.  He doesn’t explain fully why, and his father misunderstands his heart and says hurtful things of his own, and Sung Chan runs away from home, ending the contest with a draw, and breaking the little family- as well as my heart.  Sniff.

The rest of the show follows the two brothers as the rift between them only widens.  Bong Joo veers way too far into jerkitude territory and he’s easy to hate.   This is made easier because Sung Chan is such a sweetheart and so very lovable.  However, once I thought about it more,  I think Bong Joo really thought Sung Chan would come home in a few days and he’s hurt more than he admits when they don’t even hear from Sung Chan for a year, and even then it’s only by accident. That hurt only deepens his anger and resentment of Sung Chan. He has no idea, I think, about the hurtful thing he said that I believe is what really made Sung Chan leave- that’s because he didn’t mean it, it was just something he flung out in a moment of fury, but Sung Chan believes he meant it.  Their father still refuses to make the succession clear and even though Bong Joo now knows why, he still doesn’t really understand it because he’s the good, dutiful, son who stays and does the right thing, and he has a point.  However, his anger fuels his ambition to prove himself, and this fuels further conflicts and some character tests for him that he fails.

Circumstances pit the two brothers against each other repeatedly, Bong Joo misunderstands Sung Chan again and again.  He’s wrong, but there are good reasons and bad timing behind his misundertandings in several cases.  Crises at the restaurant, betrayals, and a corporate takeover result in the very real possibility that neither of the brothers will get it, etc, etc.

 Other episodes show us Sung Chan as he travels around the countryside, finding new foods to cook, new heartaches to mend with food and cooking done with love and heart.  This view of a wider range of Korea than just Seoul, like we see in most dramas, was another reason I found it a fun show to watch.   We also get some tiny dollops of romance, as Jin-Soo’s job as a food reporter often throws her in proximity with Sung Chan,  Bong Joo tries to court Joo Hee, and Joo Hee waffles around with her “Bong Joo-shi!” mantra and failure to explain anything to anybody and irritating the stuffing out of me.

If you are vegetarian, you really don’t want to watch this one. It’s all about Korean food, and that means a lot of fish, shellfish, and some yummy Korean beef, which you follow from a boy’s living, breathing, and very beloved pet cow (the boy calls her his dongsaeng and tells them you don’t sell your little sister) right down to the grilled beef at the end, with a lot of details about the middle. There’s even a contest where meat-cutters compete on speed and precision in cutting up the cows.  I will only say there is a very, very good reason for the boy’s father to sell his child’s pet cow, and she gave her life for a good cause, but even for this dedicated meat-eater (and we’ve eaten our daughter’s pet pig before), it was a hard one to watch.

 It’s a combined drama and cooking class, almost. I’d love a cookbook of the foods from this show.  Kim Rae-Won likes to cook and I read he took cooking classes in advance of the show, and he has published a cookbook, but it’s not in English.

And, while this show is about the food, it’s also about the food as metaphor for relationships, human connections, and culture.

The only three things to watch for if you were looking for family friendly viewing:

Episode 15 has a scene where a couple who aren’t really boyfriend/girlfriend yet, but might be showing signs of more interest in each other, are changing out of wet clothes in the back of his truck. They are modestly divided by a thick curtain. We see him in his underwear and t-shirt. And then, according to Dramabeans, he teases her by repeatedly pretending to peek in on her side- with little ploys, like, “Are you done yet?” and “Oh, would this shirt fit you?” I didn’t think he was pretending, but I’ll trust DB. I do like the relationship between these two- they are friends before they are anything else, and very relaxed and natural with each other, so natural, that when he is collapsing in laughter over his antics and calls to her through the curtain, “You know I like you, right?” it’s hard to tell if he’s making a confession of love or just declaring their (platonic)  friendship.

He’s in his underwear again in a later episode when he thinks a friend is drowning and strips down to underwear and t-shirt to dive in and save him.  They aren’t tighty whities or Calvin Kleins, but they aren’t boxers, either.

In one of the earlier episodes (but I don’t recall which one), in one of the flashback scenes we see the two boys scrubbing each other’s backs at the public bathhouse. They are sitting on the edge of the wall, and it’s only a profile view, but you know, it’s a bathhouse, so obviously, they aren’t dressed.  They are just kids and I didn’t have an issue with the scene, but I know some of my friends would.

Further thoughts:

The two brothers have very different approaches to food and cooking, at least on the surface, and many of the episodes are about that.  Sung Chan is all heart, Bong Joo is driven by a different ambition, he wants to expand Korean food internationally and he’s dropping some of the basics in the pursuit of his drive.

I think it’s too simplistic, though, to view this all as Sung Chan = noble hero, Bong Joo= villain, although that is an easy mistake to make when Bong Joo is so dark and angry and Sung Chan is such a charming, warm, likable and misunderstood little brother. The main actor is outstanding here- totally believable, and his character is extremely sympathetic.  He’s so likable that it’s easy to overlook and forgive the mistakes he makes.  It’s really impossible not to love his on screen character here, but when I thought about it objectively, Bong Joo’s rage at him for disappearing for a full year without letting their aging father hear a word from him to let him know his youngest son was at least alive is entirely justified.  No wonder he thinks Sung Chan doesn’t love them as much as he was loved.  It’s a poor way of repaying an old man who took Sung Chan  in and loved him as his own child when he was an orphaned, rabble rousing, middle schooler, and who continued to love him and cherish him through his trouble-making high school years (and I am not entirely clear on when exactly he quit being such a wild child).  Bong Joo has always, I think, had something of the firstborn child’s feeling that he is not as favored as the younger child, but I think he also tried really hard not to mind that too much when he thought his little brother also loved them back just as much. When Sung Chan leaves and doesn’t come back, it’s like he can no longer accept that the sacrifices he’s made for his little brother were worthwhile since that little brother doesn’t love them after all (from Bong-Joo’s perspective).   And maybe the fact that Sung Chan does inspire so much more devotion and love from others because of his sunnier, easier going personality has also been a secret sting in Bong Joo’s heart. It’s easy enough for little bro to be sunny and easy going, after all,  since he lacks the sense of duty and all the other burdens and responsibilities of older bro/Hyung.

Sometimes Sung Chan’s heart causes him to make some impulsive errors in judgment, and he’s not always thoughtful of those who love him most, worrying them unnecessarily.  Sung Chan also thinks he’s totally right and Bong Joo’s totally wrong and he sets out to show his brother the error of his ways by rubbing his nose in his mistakes- and Bong Joo does pull some really shady, unethical stunts that are unquestionably wrong.  However, his goals are not as wrong as Sung Chan thinks, though his means become increasingly shaky.

Furthermore, both brothers missed an important lesson their father tried to teach them in the very first cooking contest –

*** possible spoiler, although this is only in the second episode, and as soon as the father said it, I thought, “that’s going to be the theme for the rest of the show, the lesson these two brothers have to learn:***

At the conclusion of the first cooking contest there is a clear winner.  However, after announcing the winner,  their father takes ingredients from *each* of the three cooks and combines them- making a sauce out of two of the ingredients to be used for dipping the main dish of the winner in.  The brothers and Min-Woo taste the new variation and all are astounded at the resulting improvement.  Father smiles broadly and says something like,

No matter what, you have to help each other this way.  It was only after the three of you combined ingredients that the dish really reached perfection.

But the boys keep missing their chance to learn this, Sung Chan thinking he has to teach his brother a lesson so that he will stop heading down the destructive path he’s chosen, and Bong Joo thinking that if Sung Chan really loved him as altruistically as he claims, he wouldn’t have entered the first contest to begin with, nor would he have disappeared for a year without word, and he definitely would not continue to challenge him the way he is, so he believes Sung Chan is actually out to destroy him and take over the restaurant and everything and every one he loves.

*** possible spoiler ended****

Definite spoiler:

When a magazine article harmful to the restaurant’s reputation and containing details he has told her to stay quiet about is published under Jin Soo’s byline, even though the article came out while Jin Soo was with Sung Chan, he responds with hasty and instant judgment.  He decides she was using him all along and only got close to him because of her reporter job and breaks off their friendship.  She asks him if he didn’t ever once even stop to consider that she had been betrayed, too, that it wasn’t her (her editor sneaked into her desk and found her notes and published them without letting her know).  He’s not remotely interested in listening to her side or even giving her enough benefit of the doubt to imagine there is any other possibility but betrayal.  He then goes to visit his brother, who believes that information in the article can only have come from Sung Chan himself, so his brother makes all the same assumptions about Sung Chan’s motives and behavior that Sung Chan has just made about Jin Soo, but SC doesn’t seen the connection at all.  He just is angry and upset about his hyung getting him all wrong again, but doesn’t notice he did the same thing to Jin Soo.
It’s not until a third party, much, much later, tells him that Jin Soo was not the one who sent the story to the magazine that he even gives a moment’s consideration to the idea that maybe she did not betray him.  As I say, on screen, it’s easy to hate Bong Joo and overlook Sung Chan’s faults even when they have done the same thing, because Sung Chan’s character is just sunnier and easier to forgive.  But several times the two brothers are really making essentially the same mistakes.

***  spoiler ended****


Final semi-caveat- I am resigned to almost never admiring the acting skills of the non-Korean actors in Korean dramas, and to generally finding the English skills of the Korean actors cringe-worthy, with just a few notable exceptions.  None of those exceptions are in this show.

Visit Dramabeans for more details

I watched it at Dramafever.

You might also find useful:

Dramas I’ve completed, recommend, and reviewed: see here.

Things to know when watching a K-drama

More Things To Know

What is it I like about K-Dramas?

You might be watching a K-Drama if….

Where to get your fix: Sites where you can find subtitled K-dramas (and dramas from other countries, as well. I’ve watched a handful of J-dramas (Japanese) and TW (Taiwanese) dramas, but I vastly prefer the K-dramas, even though I know more Japanese – I got an A in my Japanese 101 class back in the day, when we actually lived in Japan and once I even knew both hiragana and katakana- but still K-dramas interest me vastly more).

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  1. Ruth Cox
    Posted March 27, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

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    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted March 27, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing that.

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