A tasting menu at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s restaurant grants a culinary dimension to the current exhibition on Korean art, from classic foods reimagined to custom-created tableware.
“The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989,” which opened at the museum in October, features work by artists of Korean descent reflecting on the repercussions of globalization on the nation’s culture and national identity following that year’s lifting of a travel ban.
It marked the first time its citizens were allowed to freely experience the outside world, said Hoon Rhee, executive chef at Stir, the Gehry-designed restaurant on the museum’s first floor.
“My menu doesn’t happen,” Rhee said, “without 1989 happening.”
The themes of the exhibition resonated on a personal level. His parents were among the few who had managed to emigrate before the ban was lifted, settling in Philadelphia in 1983, just before Rhee was born. He described growing up between two worlds while often feeling disconnected from both.
“America has its ways of implying you don’t belong” as an immigrant, he said, before explaining the concept of gyopo, the mostly-derogatory term for foreign-born Koreans.
With an eye on how Korean food has since evolved — sometimes unrecognizably, Rhee noted — the chef aimed to design a menu that’s “one step away” from tradition. It’s still authentic, he said, in being based on his own experiences and the cuisine he grew up with.
Developing the tasting lineup was a “nerve-wracking” process. Rhee, who was previously sous chef at The Modern at the MoMA and worked at New York’s Masa after getting his start at Vetri, placed pressure on himself to create a menu to appeal to the diversity of the museum’s visitors, including older Koreans more accustomed to traditional culinary approaches.
“How do you preserve that history while allowing for its growth?” Rhee asked.
He offers his take on nakji-bokkeum as an answer. A traditionally rustic dish of octopus stir-fried with onions, Rhee’s tasting menu sees the tentacle served whole alongside a soubise and a strawberry gochujang, fermented over years by a small artisanal maker in Korea.
It offers a “really fruity sweetness,” he said, balanced by the “earthiness of red pepper paste,” to compliment the octopus for a softer, more subdued flavor than the original rendition.
Course-wise, it’s followed up by yeonggye baeksuk, chicken breast in chicken porridge, or “something your grandmom or mom would make you when you were sick,” Rhee said of a childhood favorite.
It’s a simple dish that he’s broken down into elaborate stages. The chicken breast is wrapped in perilla leaf, poached and wrapped again in a mousse of chicken, egg white, and heavy cream steeped in ginger, garlic, and ginseng, with a little bit of sesame. The whole is lightly roasted with a torch, resulting in a warming combination of delicately soft textures against the added jujube and chestnuts.
“Again, not traditional at all,” Rhee said, “but I want the essence to still be there, that hominess.”
The tasting menu leads with an opening bite of hwe, which translates to “raw fish,” in this case Hamachi, wrapped in seaweed and topped with persimmon and caviar.
It closes with bingsu. Traditionally a dessert of shaved ice and condensed milk with a variety of toppings, Rhee has given it an “adult interpretation.” His shaved ice is made with makgeolli — Korean rice wine — mixed with banana milk and custard, and dotted with sweet red beans.
A duo of ho dduk, a syrup filled mini-pancake, and yakgwa, a honey-rice wine-sesame oil confection, wrap up the tasting lineup.
Ceramics that tell the story along with the food
Rhee oversees all the museum food and drink operations, which are managed by Constellation Culinary. Right now at the museum’s two cafes, visitors can find sweet dalgona cookies.
Imprinted with an outlined image at their center, they’re conventionally given to kids, who get a free one if they’re able to separate the design without breaking it. It’s a well-loved tradition, Rhee said, one that was even updated for the hit series Squid Game, albeit with harsher penalties. “I think you die,” he said of failing to break a clean cookie. “So, stakes are a little different here.”
In whole, the six-course lineup keeps a modern eye on tradition, even down to the plating used for the tasting menu’s banchan spread.
It’s the result of a collaboration with ceramicist Gregg Moore who teaches an advanced ceramics class at Arcadia. Three of his students — Angelina Brewer, Michael DiRienzo, and Daniel Mack — explored the museum’s archives of Korean ceramics from various dynasties to come up with a design that was referential as well as practical.
The goal was a shape between a bowl and a plate appropriate for banchan of varying textures and sauciness, sized in ratio with available table space, and styled to match the restaurant’s aesthetic beyond the exhibition. It wasn’t easy: 80 to 100 prototypes later, Rhee finally told them, “That’s the one.”
The final design sits on a squat angular foot, a nod to the style of plates ritualistically used for food offerings for the deceased. The sporadic darkening in the glazing, Rhee explained, is suggestive of earlier wood-fired Korean works.
While the exhibition runs till Feb. 11, Rhee plans to overhaul the current menu by early January to offer a heartier lineup for the winter and address what he believes are standing omissions. “You can’t talk about Korean cuisine without pork,” he said, adding he’d like to put his twist on a ssam, among other dishes he’s been considering.
“I don’t want to just narrow it down to this one interpretation,” Rhee said. “I want to kind of give different iterations of it.”
The Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989 is curated by Elisabeth Agro and Hyunsoo Woo. The exhibition runs through Feb. 11, 2024.
Stir | 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday-Monday, Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday | $68 pp.