The Threez Review: Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle

Yummy! Click here to read KoreanDiorama's interview with Kim Jung-eun

I watched this movie today, having a lunch of black chicken double boiled with ginseng and red date, with my mother-in-law who had nasi ulam with long beans and dried shrimp on the side.

I love watching food shows with my mother-in-law. We both love to cook, and she is far more experimental than me. This morning we watched Martha Stewart and her guests do a sausage and fennel dish and some kind of a panettone. It’s great to ooh and aah over the same things, and argue over whether fennel and dill are the same or even from the same family. (“No lah Mom it’s noooot!”)

Le Grand Chef 2 is a worthy followup to, though not as satisfying movie as Le Grand Chef. Had I watched it on its own, I think it would have earned at least half a star more.

The tale centres around the power of a mother’s love and the way it flavours her cooking. There is something universal about “Mom’s cooking” that brings you back to a time when you felt your mother’s love acutely. (True for most, I would think. For me, it was the monthly feast of deep-fried prawns and fishball soup my mom would make for me after I got married and moved out. I could taste her love even in the sliced fruit she brought out after dinner.)

Sung-chan (Jin Goo) is a vegetable seller by day. But he is a stellar cook with roots dating back to the Korean emperor’s kitchen. This story picks up with him going to visit his adoptive parents. His adoptive mother owns a famous restaurant in Korea, which she has now closed down due to many unpaid debts. A property developer is pestering her to sell out so that he can expand the golf course next to the restaurant.

Jung-eun (Kim Jung-eun) is the birth daughter of Sung-chan’s mother, who never knew her father (my Korean is as good as my Russian so I’m guessing she was a comfort woman of some sort). Growing up taunted in school and ashamed of her roots, Jung-eun is now the Prime Minister’s chef in Japan after having left Korea for a decade.

She returns now, having “proven herself”, but her first task is to fight with her mother over giving up the restaurant. For her, it is a place of shame. For her mother, it is her whole life.

A national Kimchi Battle is announced to find the kimchi-making champion of the city. Jung-eun and Sung-chan find themselves pitted against each other: her many-starred culinary expertise against his simple yet astounding skill.

The first dish is the oldest kimchi dish in the world: the white kimchi. The secret ingredient is the salt. Jung-ean proves her mettle by handmaking sea salt for her steamed fusion white kimchi, yet loses to Sung-chan’s clever use of soya sauce, which not only adds salt to the vegetables but brings out their crunchiness.

The cooking parts are my favourite, but this movie has far less kitchen kungfu than Le Grand Chef. Still, the key principle holds: “A dish represents the chef’s heart.” Food in the Le Grand Chef movies, is purely an outward expression of the heart, and a commentary on the state of relationships between the characters.

Sung-chan, in his quest to find the most inventive kimchi, is led to an old lady’s eatery by a strange persimmon seller. The woman’s kimchi contains king crab flesh. As the woman tells her story, it becomes apparent that the son she used to cook for is the persimmon seller, who killed a man in a drunken accident, and is now on the run.

Sung-chan convinces the man to visit his mother, for he misses her and the sign of her love: her cooking. The joyful mother-son reunion is cut short when the persimmon seller is taken away by the police. And the mother’s anguished words as the cop car pulls away: “He hasn’t even eaten yet.”

The tragedy stirs up bitter memories for Sung-chan, whose birth mother was deaf. As a child, he suffered a near-death experience when he fell into a pond — his mother was unable to hear his cries for help. Fearing that he would fall into danger because of her inability to help him, his mother gave him to the restaurant owner and her partner. All she left him was a note and a pot of freshly made kimchi, which he stared at for days, crying, till it rotted.

This episode weighed so much on Sung-chan’s mind that his kimchi, though made brilliantly with fresh king crab, came out bitter, underscoring the state of his heart.

A story all mothers (and children) can identify with, Le Grand Chef 2 captures the way a mother cooks for her babies. The love, the thought put in, the unique ingredients that that child likes or needs… every mother who cooks will smile at the charming portrayal of this timeless ritual.

When her mother collapses and is found to be ill with terminal cancer, the siblings face off in the final kimchi battle: simply to make the best kimchi that the whole world will appreciate.

Sung-chan receives his emotional healing when he is brought to see the doctor who cared for his late mother. He was reminded of how his mother cheated death just to feel his presence in the room one last time before she died; that, despite what he chose to believe, his mother loved him.

The finale is predictable, but nevertheless thoroughly satisfying, as Sung-chan and Jung-ean face off in the ultimate kimchi battle. Sung-chan’s dissection of his kimchi and the significance of each reduces both Jung-ean and the audience to tears.

My mother-in-law’s face is wet by the time the credits roll. Sniffling, she says, “I think we have half a pack of kimchi left in the fridge.”

Kimchi noodles for dinner tonight, looks like.

Rating: ****
Cancer Recovery Points: Kimchi contains loads of vitamins and was apparently named one of the Top 5 Healthiest Foods in the World. My friend the health guru John Lynn says “The indole content switches off 16 alpha hydroxyestrone to safe mode…to prevent/cure breast CA. Eat Kimchi everyday.”
Comments: Rent this movie and watch it hungry (and preferably with a mom).

I rented this movie at 7 Frames. They do home deliveries.

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