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Cheat Day: Gu Jin Kwang, executive culinary leader of Soil to Soul

Hong Kong boasts one of the most dynamic dining scenes on the planet, filled with culinarians and tastemakers galore. In our Cheat Day column, we spotlight some of the players in the kitchen and behind the bar, delving into their personal favourites during their days off. This week, we speak to chef Gu Jin Kwang of Soil to Soul.

Bringing a twist to Korean cuisine, Soil to Soul built its concept around vegetarian Korean temple food. Soil to Soul’s Executive Culinary Leader, Chef Gu, cooks up a delicious traditional Korean afternoon tea set — “Beyond Vegan-Winter” — inspired by his time learning the culture of temple food from famed nun WooKwan in Korea.

The mastermind behind Soil to Soul’s dishes, Chef Gu Jin Kwang has been actively involved in the culinary industry in various cities and cultures, to bring together a fresh way to experience vegetarian meals. Gathering his culinary knowledge as a head chef in the UK and Korea, Chef Gu specialises in fermenting and marinating seasonal vegetables in Korean-style sauces that he created himself. Having met a Buddhist nun during his time in Korea, he picked up temple vegetarian culinary culture from her, and has incorporated it into establishing dishes for Soil to Soul.

The eloquent afternoon tea set presents a thematic experience of monastic-style dining, with signature favourites and a brand new creation, served on a two-layered wooden box with traditional Korean herbal tea.

Could you tell us about your journey as a chef?

Exciting. I worked in different countries and cities; the experience of working across different cultures is amazing and it enriched by cooking techniques. It also brings a unique twist to the dishes I create.

Before I started my career at Soil to Soul, I spent years learning about temple food in Korea, and was trained under nun WooKwan. The experience was unforgettable, and it gave me the opportunity to learn more about the inspiring culture and beliefs of temple food.

What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve received?

Be open minded, always stay curious.

You’ve worked as a head chef in Korea and the UK before Hong Kong. What do you love the most about working in each of these culinary scenes?

In the UK, I was trained under a Michelin-star French chef and was exposed to a lot of western ingredients like truffle that I had never tried in Korea, which boosted my creativity on infusing the western food culture into traditional Korean food.

Subsequent to returning to Korea, the acquisition of “Master of Temple Food” allowed me to explore deeply on how fermentation processes add flavours to varying ingredients, for example, Kimchi.

Do you usually cook when you are home? Any special and easy-to-make dishes for us to cook ourselves?

Yes, I cook for my family every day.

As for easy-to-make dishes, I would recommend you buy a piece of pork belly and marinate it with soy bean paste, braise for an hour, then store in the fridge. Whenever you want to eat it, simply slice it into pieces and steam it for a few minutes, depending on the size of the pork. it pairs perfectly with Kimchi and Jang Ajji (Korean pickle).

What are your signature dish/es?

  • Royal Mushroom Soup: a comforting winter warmer of white mushrooms including morel, porcini, and girolle.
  • Korean Turnip Dumpling: gluten-free dumplings made using a thin slice of turnip as the dumpling wrapper, commonly enjoyed during the winter when radishes are best in season.
  • Sweet & Spicy Assorted Mushroom with Assorted Vegetables: in a unique house-made Korean sauce for 5-10 years.

Many dishes in Korean culture are specifically meat or seafood based/inspired. Were there any challenges switching up ingredients and preparation methods to cultivate a vegetarian menu?

One of the challenges is sourcing the ingredients — as most of the vegetables are seasonal, we have to adjust the ingredients of the dishes when the selected ingredients are unavailable.

Yes, the majority’s perception of Korean food or vegetarian food is also a big challenge, so I hope to surprise our guests with natural flavours of the ingredients to reflect the overall temple culinary disciplines.

Cheat Day time! Which are your five go-to dishes/drinks in restaurants or bars in Hong Kong?

I like going to dai pai dongs, as I think it is a very Hong Kong-style dining experience, and I enjoy the vibes there so much. The Wok Hei there is also very distinctive.

My favourite dai pai dong dishes are Deep-fried Squid with Salt and Pepper, Roasted Pork Belly, Roasted Crispy Pigeon, Fried Crab with Garlic and Chili Sauce and Deep-fried Pig Intestines.

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