Cooking Is Like Praying, When A Buddhist Nun Becomes A Celebrity Chef

The South Korea nun's culinary philosophy has influenced chefs and foodies around the world.

Jeong Kwan says she feels a spiritual connection with the food she prepares
Jason Strother

BUKHA-MYEON — When I arrived at Baekyangsa temple in South Jeolla province, 270 kilometers south of the South Korean capital of Seoul, I was met with rain sliding from tiled roofs.

The venerable Jeong Kwan was waiting for me in front of the Chunjinam hermitage. Like all Buddhist monks and nuns, Jeong Kwan's head is shaved. She looks grandmotherly in her grey robe, but she won't tell me how old she is. Then again, age is just a number. The nun has lived at the temple since she was 17, and she's been cooking for even longer.

She says she feels a spiritual connection with the food she prepares. "Humans are like seeds. You plant a seed in the soil and it grows," she told me. "Just like the way we come from our mothers' bodies. This is how we are all connected to the universe. Nature takes time to grow all things. I can be a cucumber, I can be cabbage. When I cook, I become that ingredient."

Jeong Kwan speaks mostly in Buddhist spiritual terms — it's a little over my head. But this perspective on food and life is what has made her a celebrity, philosopher chef. Last year, she was featured in the Netflix documentary series The Chef's Table. Now food lovers from far and wide make the pilgrimage to Baekyangsa to learn from her.

The nun has lived at the temple since she was 17 — Photo: Giancarlo Cadengue

But Jeong Kwan says her new celebrity status has not changed her. She is a monk first, chef second. Inside a sanctuary, Jeong Kwan shows me how to pray in front of a large Buddha statue. She says there is no difference between meditating here and cooking in the kitchen.

"To me, cooking is like praying. When I enter the kitchen, I enter without thoughts. It's just like I am bowing to Buddha. I concentrate only on myself and what I'm doing at that moment. I hope that those who eat what I've cooked feel happy and at peace," she says.

The kitchen is where Jeong Kwan says she can best communicate with others. Standing in front of the stove, she's preparing seaweed soup. Next to her are bowls of diced kimchi, persimmons and noodles. All ingredients are grown on or near the temple grounds.

Unlike a lot of Korean cuisine, which relies heavily on salt, pepper paste and other sauces, Jeong Kwan says she keeps her dishes simple.

"It's like if you put on too much make up, you don't feel free. So when I cook, I avoid using too much sauce or marinade. I want to maximize the original taste of the ingredient. I seek the emotional flavor of a vegetable"

She says you need to taste the food with your entire body. But most people don't understand that what they put in their mouths affects them in ways they never expect. "These days people eat too much fast food, especially those who live in cities," she says. "When you eat this kind of food, your mind also rushes. It makes you angry, or violent. I think by eating slow food, it transforms you as well, but in a positive way."

Last year, Jeong Kwan was featured in the Netflix documentary series The Chef's Table — Photo: Sweet Beet Acupuncture

And don't cook when you're angry either, Jeong Kwan adds. It poisons the food and will make those who eat it angry, too.

When dinner is served, we eat soybean stew, shitake mushrooms and multigrain rice. It is a delicious feast, but Jeong Kwan doesn't think it's anything special. She says food is just fuel for her meditation. She never actually craves anything.

"All human beings have three desires. The desire to sleep, the desire to eat and the desire to live for a long time," she tells me. "But if you can't relinquish these desires, then you'll never become free or enlightened. Giving up the desire to eat is the most difficult. I think if we all could end this desire then we'd all feel more comfortable"

Giving up wanting food? I find that hard to swallow. I also can't believe she doesn't crave anything from outside the temple. So before I said good-bye to Jeong Kwan, I had to ask if she had any guilty pleasures. What she told me was, well, enlightening.

"Well, sometimes, not too often, I enjoy ice cream, or maybe chocolate. Especially after I've been meditating all day," she says with a giggle. "I feel ice cream really refreshes my body and energy."

Vanilla and green tea flavored ice cream to be exact, she adds.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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