Jeong Kwan: the acclaimed chef who also happens to be a Buddhist nun

By Nina Steele 

Jeong Kwan Chef's TableCelebrity chefs have become part of our modern culture and the one character trait they all seem to share is their oversized egos. Imagine then a chef who is everything the modern chef isn’t, and you have Jeong Kwan. As a Buddhist nun, freeing herself from the grip of the ego is her number one priority. And so, watching this most talented of chefs, is both refreshing and a reminder that being a great chef and having a huge ego don’t always have to go hand in hand.

I have to admit that I was sceptical at first when I realised that Jeong Kwan was among the chefs featured in the Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table”. That’s mainly because, I had never heard of her before. Being used to watching loud mouths chefs all these years, I wasn’t sure that I was ready for a nun. It was too much of a departure for me to stomach. But of course I watched her and instantly liked her and her style. And most importantly, she more than deserves to be featured on the show, for the simple reason that, her food, which is vegan, seems heavenly.

That she does not use garlic nor onion in her cooking, makes it all the more remarkable. Explaining why this is so, she says that “the energy coming from these ingredients will prevent a monk’s spirit from achieving a state of calmness” and that “it’s a distraction to meditation”.

Her backstory is equally impressive. One of seven children, born to Korean parents, she became a nun aged 17. The year was 1974. Her decision to become a nun was as a result of losing her mother. The experience left her so broken that she vowed never to put a child through that herself, and the best way to do so, in her view, was to never marry nor have children. Being a nun therefore, was the perfect solution. Speaking of her mother’s death she said: “I realised there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t give my children the same kind of pain one day. I vowed never to pass down that pain”.

Now aged 61, she has become a reluctant celebrity. Those who have tried her food put it on the same level of quality as that of any other top celebrity chef. Among her most vocal fans is Jeff Gordinier of the New York Times. He describes the experience of eating her food for the first time as “life changing”. Not bad for a woman who taught herself to cook and never had any formal culinary training.

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