As editors, we strive to tell the stories of extraordinary people doing ordinary things and ordinary people doing extraordinary things. In celebration of that goal, PEOPLE Food asked award-winning chef and author Eric Ripert to share his story about meeting his mentor and teacher, Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan—whose story is featured in the third season of Netflix’s original series Chef’s Table, available for streaming on Feb. 17th. Below in his own words, Ripert writes about their strong bonds of food and friendship.
In the mountains a few hours from Seoul, there’s a temple called Baekyangsa. This temple is inhabited by monks, and on top of a nearby hill sits a smaller hermitage. This is where Jeong Kwan resides.
I first met Jeong Kwan while I was in Korea shooting for my television show Avec Eric. One of my goals on this trip was to learn more about and gain a deeper understanding of temple food. To achieve this, it was recommended that I travel to Baekyangsa and meet with this zen Buddhist nun.
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Jeong Kwan welcomed me with no questions or apprehensions, and I immediately felt her warmth, friendliness and generosity. During the time I spent at the temple, she mentored me on the principles of temple cuisine, which I absorbed and have kept with me ever since. The concept and process of temple food begins long before ingredients reach the plate; rather it starts with the planting of the seed in the surrounding garden that has been created and maintained with the sole purpose of feeding the community.
Every seed for every organic vegetable, fruit and herb grown is planted with prayers of love and compassion. This offering is carried throughout the cycle from planting the seed, to growing the plant to harvesting the fruit. It’s a conscious meditation. Once the produce is ripe and ready for eating, this mindful mediation continues to the kitchen through the preparation of the food. Everything is handled with such love and care that ultimately, I believe, has an impact on the flavor as well the effects on the body and mind. This organic, vegan food not only nourishes the body but carries many virtues, including medicinal, that help to keep a clear and focused mind.
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The food is seasonal and includes a lot of fermentation (kimchi) and aging (soy sauce stored in jars underground) techniques. An interesting thing about temple cuisine is that because Buddhists cannot be attached to anything, the food cannot be addictive. The food should taste good, but cannot induce cravings. Though I am a practicing Buddhist, Jeong Kwan’s method of taking Buddhist principles and applying them in such a way where they are universally beneficial, through the medium of food, is very inspiring to me.
An incredible teacher, Jeong is an extremely talented cook. Her food is not only healthy and mindful but delicious, so much so that I invited her to cook at my New York City restaurant Le Bernardin, where she prepared a wonderfully flavorsome vegan tasting menu. I can still taste it! I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Jeong Kwan and be touched by her deep sense of compassion and wisdom, matched only perhaps by her playful sense of humor!
The third season of Chef’s Table is available on Netflix beginning Feb. 17th.