Chef Eunji Lee on the Art of Indulgence
The visionary pastry chef behind the five-course dessert tasting menu at Jungsik discusses her journey from Korea to France to New York, her favorite local spots to indulge, and more.
When chef Jungsik Yim opened his namesake restaurant Jungsik in Tribeca in 2011, his goal was to shift public perception of Korean cuisine. Because up to that point, it was mostly associated with the casual, everyday staples of kimchi, barbecued beef, and bibimbap.
Clearly, things have changed. Today, not only has Jungsik remained one of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants—by earning two Michelin stars every year since 2013—it’s widely credited as the pioneer of modern Korean cuisine.
In 2016, Sik shook up how we view Korean food once again by bringing on board pastry chef Eunji Lee. (Koreans typically skip dessert or opt for something simple like fresh fruit or tea.) It didn’t take long before Lee’s intricate and whimsical desserts caught the attention of foodies far beyond New York. Her baby banana, in particular, is a sublime example of her creative vision. With a fork and knife, you crack open the white chocolate shell, which is brushed with milk chocolate “dark spots” to make it look indistinguishable from the real thing, to reveal banana cream and Baileys-infused banana cake inside. In short? It’s as easy on the eyes, as it is on the palate.
Below, Lee discusses her journey from Korea to France to New York, how she gets inspired to work, and her favorite local spots to indulge her sweet tooth.
What do you love most about your job?
EL: I really love people’s reactions, and the happiness I see on my diners faces when they taste my desserts. I also love that pastry chefs can make their dishes look beautiful, and taste good, too.
Could you briefly discuss your journey from Korea to France, and then how you landed in New York?
EL: When I was 19 years old, I moved by myself to France from Korea to pursue my dream of becoming a pastry chef. I attended a pastry and bakery school and was able to secure several internships in a number of different pastry shops. I worked for three years at a one Michelin-starred Ze Kitchen Galerie, and then for four years at Le Meurice Hotel. In 2016, I received an amazing opportunity to move to New York, and then became the executive pastry chef at Jungsik.
How has New York inspired you in your work?
EL: When I arrived in New York, I tried to understand and adapt to locals’ palates and dining culture. I visited a lot of pastry shops and restaurants to taste the desserts. I also went to the farmer’s market and grocery stores to get a feel for the different ingredients and fruits available. Really, all of my surroundings in New York inspired me on how to approach my diners’ palates—but I still wanted my own identity to come through in my desserts.
What led you to work at Jungsik, and why do you love about working there?
EL: I was always a big fan of the Jungsik in Seoul, and every year when I went back to Korea from France, I always had a meal there. Then one day chef Jungsik Yim offered me this great opportunity, and I thought why not? It was already one of my favorite restaurants. I also loved the concept of the restaurant and it fit nicely with my identity—my Korean heritage, French technique, and my knowledge of Korean cuisine. I also wanted to have the experience to work in New York City.
Your desserts are whimsical and inventive. What’s your process for creating new ones?
EL: I mostly choose the ingredients by season, to ensure the best quality and flavor. It’s very important to understand each season’s produce. Then I think about the supportive components that will complement the dish. For example, in Spring we have strawberries and white asparagus. If I picked these two ingredients, I need to think about what other components will relate to these flavors as well, in terms of seasoning. Then once I have all the components, I test how I will plate the dish to make it the most visual. For example, when I decided to make the banana dessert, I wanted to make sure it truly looked like a banana. Now, it’s our signature dessert.
Where are your favorite dessert spots in New York?
EL: I have so many places that I love, but I am very fond of Stick With Me bonbons. My favorite is the black and white. I love the marriage between the smooth vanilla cream and the Oreo cookie. I also like The NoMad’s ice cream sandwich, as it tastes so good, and is easy and simple. Last but not least, I love Chef Jiho Kim’s chocolate dessert with butterbeer ice cream at The Modern. All of his ice creams are delicious and have a beautiful presentation.
WORDS Katie Chang