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May 16, 2021

[Eye interview] The unstoppable traveling chef

  • PUBLISHED :February 05, 2021 - 09:01
  • UPDATED :February 05, 2021 - 11:37
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Lee Jeong-hyung poses before an interview with The Korea Herald on Jan. 29 (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

You are young, ready to plunge into life.

You have plans, places to go, things to do.

And boom, the walls close down on you. You are trapped.

That is how young people around the world must be feeling in these pandemic times.

For those on the cusp of full-blown adulthood, that delicious time of irrepressible youth and seemingly infinite possibilities, COVID-19 is a disruptor that has robbed them of the life that is rightfully theirs.

The circumstances are no different for Lee Jeong-hyung who turns 27 this month. All his plans for 2020 and beyond have been thwarted and postponed indefinitely.

“My plan was to travel through Africa, from Egypt to South Africa, from June to December,” Lee said during an interview with The Korea Herald on Jan. 29, one of the coldest days of the year so far. It was a fitting day to interview someone who wants to travel remote parts of the world, including the Antarctica. 

Lee Jeong-hyung jumps on Hyeopjae Beach, Jeju Island in June 2020 (Courtesy of Lee Jeong-hyung)

Lee describes himself as “chwijunsaeng.” A dictionary definition of chwijunsaeng is “a person who is preparing for employment by equipping himself with capabilities that may help in finding a job.”

And what Lee has been doing is just that. With overseas travel nearly impossible and job openings almost nil, Lee, who graduated last year from a technical college where he majored in hotel cooking, earned four different government certificates in cooking -- Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Western food -- over a five to six-month period. He prepared for TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) but quit after three months upon realizing that no tests were being offered. And he continues his regimen of 90 pushups a day, which he started in 2012 as a way to keep fit.

“I think I am a beneficiary of the current situation,” Lee said, listing all the things that he has been doing toward realizing his goal.

And what job is he preparing for? Lee’s immediate goal is to get a position as an assistant chef at King Sejong Station, Korea’s Antarctic research station. The job sounds like a perfect fit --combining his passion for remote travel and his training as a chef.

Hiring notices for South Pole chefs typically go out in September or October. Sensing that things might not go as usual -- after all, nothing about 2020 was usual or ordinary -- he called up the Korea Polar Research Institute which operates the Antarctic station and was told what he already knew. There would be no hiring in 2020. Lee does not think 2021 will be different.

But Lee is undeterred in his quest to get to the Antarctica, a dream that he has harbored ever since his backpack travels across the Central and South Americas, from November 2017 to March 2018. The 104-day trip took him to 11 countries and to a serendipitous meeting with destiny.

Eating ramen at KoKo-Men, small eatery run by a Korean in Punta Arenas on the southernmost tip of Chile, Lee noticed a business card on a wall that said “King Sejong Station Chef.”

“I was so close to the South Pole but there was no way to get there,” said Lee. “And then I saw the business card,” he said with excitement in his voice. He had found a way to get to South Pole.

Upon returning to Korea, he enrolled at a college where he eventually focused on Korean cuisine. 

Lee Jeong-hyung participates in a camping cooking competition on Guleopdo, Incheon, in October 2020 (Courtesy of Lee Jeong-hyung)

Lee explained how travelers often prepare dishes from their own countries to share with fellow travelers. “They asked me to make Korean food and I thought I would prepare jeyukbokkeum,” said Lee. Jeyukbokkeum is a popular stir-fried spicy pork. “I quickly realized that I did not know how to make it. I was disappointed at myself,” he said. He is now confident that when he resumes his travels, he will be ready to cook up Korean dishes for travelers from around the world.

With the rest of the world closed off to him, Lee has been traveling around Korea, climbing mountains and trekking on islands. He has been perfecting camp-side cooking, entering and winning competitions. “Speed is of essence,” Lee said of his creations. Egg-in-hell and a pork in shallow broth have been hits, he said. To hone his cooking skills, he has been holding “Jeong Sikdang,” a dinner to which he invites friends and acquaintances, which recently had its 56th run.

His guests run the gamut from people he met while traveling, including well-known mountaineer Han Wan-young, who has climbed all 14 eight-thousanders in the Himalayas and is known as the cleaner of the Himalayas for his efforts to preserve the pristine environment, to people he wants to learn from. The guests for his next Jeong Sikdang recently published a book about their travel to Antarctica and their escape from being stranded in the Antarctic Ocean as COVID-19 pandemic hit the globe.

Lee Jeong-hyung climbs the Kolping Peak on the Pakistani side of the Himalayas in August 2019 (Courtesy of Lee Jeong-hyung)

Traveling has been perhaps Lee’s greatest teacher, the remote wilderness his school. At major turning points in his life, Lee took to the road and returned with a new insight and a new direction.

After he failed to get into a university of his choice for the third time, he headed for the Kilimanjaro in Africa and upon return served his mandatory military duty as a member of the Dokdo Security Police. On that remote island, he planned the trip to Central and South Americas, inspired by the 2014 backpack trip through India. It was a difficult trip but one that had given him a taste of the exhilaration of rough traveling to remote areas. With his service completed, Lee set off for the Central and South Americas and it was during this trip that he decided on his next course of action -- learning to cook and going to the Antarctica as a chef.

“I learn about the variety of life by meeting diverse people on my travels,” Lee said. “It was through my travels that I learned not to be anxious and to be at ease,” he added.”

There are moments when he does get anxious about life’s uncertainties, especially in these pandemic times. “Of course. I get nervous when I come back home. I don’t have a stable income,” he said. What keeps him steady is having a clear goal, he said.

Ultimately, Lee wants to return to his first love. “I imagine myself in my later years settling in a place that I liked during my travels, and running a restaurant serving Korean and fusion Korean dishes,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lee dreams of traveling down the African continent with a 15-kg backpack holding his cooking paraphernalia, ready to whip up delicious Korean dishes in the great outdoors.

By Kim Hoo-ran (khooran@heraldcorp.com)

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