directed by Choi Jong Soo
Korea 2008


The Series (vols. 1 & 2) : 7 (of 10)
Vol. 2 continues the saga of Unamjung, Korea's premier restaurant and the presumed (though fictional) heir to the Royal Chef's kitchen. The descendent of the royal chef himself is Sung Chan who was adopted into the Unamjung family at a young age, though its owner and head chef kept Sung Chan's real lineage a secret in hopes that destiny would reveal the truth in its good time. But that truth leaked early, causing distress for everyone concerned.

The basic thrust of the drama right through to the final episode, all against the background of more than you could ever want to know about cooking and Korean cuisine in particular, is the resolution of the break between Sung Chan, his brother and his adoptive father. In Vol. 1 (episodes 1-12), a series of cooking contests served to determine the winner who would direct Unamjung's future. In Vol. 2 (episodes 13-24) Chef Oh's natural (and older) son, Bong Joo, continues his obsessive resolve to expand his father's business to the rest of the world, though it means (as it usually does) cutting back on quality.

For his part, Sung Chan continues his exploration of the secrets of Korean cooking throughout Korea's cities, harbors and countryside. From time to time this brings him in confrontation with his brother, who does not take kindly to Sung Chan's charming influence on his fiancée, Joo Hee, whose story is expanded in these later episodes. The same is true for Sung Chan's primary love interest, the ditzy, but well-meaning reporter Jin Soo. Actually I should say that Jin Soo is our love interest, since it takes nearly the entire series for Sung Chan to finally admit to what everyone else seems to be clear about. The young apprentice, Shin Gaek, also makes a strong showing in the early episodes of Vol. 2, bringing to the story some of the most compelling drama in the entire series.


I'd like to use this opportunity to risk several generalizations about the genre of Korean TV dramas of which The Grand Chef is a prime example: On the one hand, there is a compulsive avoidance of the conditional: No one ever says: "I'll try" or "I'll do what I can." They say: "I promise" or "Trust me." When things don't work out – as they invariably don't since they make promises that aren't in their power to keep – there is great loss of face and disruption of relationship. The rest of the drama is driven by attempts to regain favor by more promises that continue to fail to bring about atonement and instead result in more grief or death of the innocent. The series ends when the writers run out of ideas or the producers run out of money, at which time, the protagonist(s) admit the error of their ways and all is forgiven.

The Christian ethic of how to live one's life is confirmed, but it makes for exceedingly unsubtle drama. I don't mind that we can anticipate how things will come out in the end – I'm a sucker for a classic Hollywood melodrama – what I find difficult is that I've had to put up with some pretty bad behavior by one person or another for the length of the drama – in this case, some 22 hours – before forgiveness is offered and apologies are expressed. A person can live a sinful life or treat others that love them with the grossest disrespect, but in the end, all is forgiven. All's right with the world. The story often does not offer a rational explanation for why there should be a rapprochement – it simply happens. Loose ends may or may not be tied up, but forgiveness occurs only because the "guilty" party is now at the end of his rope and there is no way to go but up – or death – or both (see also my review of The Snow Queen.)

On the other hand, there is an equally devoted avoidance of the expression of positive feeling – especially by young women and men in general. As in most Korean melodramas of this type, this give way to what passes for comedy: a great many hesitations, testing of
the waters and misunderstandings. It has a certain charm, to be sure. Apparently, Koreans can't get enough of this because matters don't usually get clarified until at or near the end. It's one thing to do this in a two-hour movie, but a 24-hour long series may be more than your average Westerner can take. Be warned.

Finally, there is the subservience of narrative consistency to emotional resolution. As happened in Palace, a more solid series in my opinion, the producers were more concerned with sorting out the emotional drama between Crown Prince Lee Shin and Hyo Rin, his new bride, than with the legal difficulties created by Prince Lee Yool resulting from his act of arson. In fact, his criminal act was completely forgotten at the end. Likewise, in The Grand Chef, a big part of the dramatic crisis in the final episodes was created by a bogus investigation into the financial records of Unamjung and all its worldwide offices. This put the restaurant's entire business operation on hold until . . . well, until the final cookoff challenge, after which the problem with the records magically disappeared. Once all was resolved or forgiven between the principal parties, the thorny problem of a legal investigation, no matter how it was contrived to start with, vanished like the butter in a baked potato.

The Psychology of Betrayal and Rage [SPOILER ALERT:]
My one difficulty with The Grand Chef in particular is with the psychology of the character of Bong Joo and his relationship to his father on the one hand and his adopted brother on the other. It is only natural for there to be jealousies between siblings, potentially more so between adopted siblings. And I can well imagine in a culture where respect for one's parents and ancestors is as powerful as it is here that when Bong Joo learns that it is his brother, and not himself, who is the true heir to the lineage of royal chef, and that his father has always known this and has essentially lied about this until the boys were into their adult years, that Bong Joo would redirect his animosities and feelings of betrayal from his father (where they rationally belong) to his brother, who is entirely innocent.

While the father is aware of all the grief he has caused and feels an understandable, overwhelming guilt for his "crime," Bong Joo never comes to appreciate this fact. Once his father dies – in effect, as a direct result of Bong Joo's abreaction to his father's favor of Sung Chan – it is as if Bong Joo's natural repository for his rage has died with him and he is able to allow himself to accept and "forgive" his brother (even though his brother had done nothing that demands forgiveness. Bong Joo appears relieved and determined to live his life from this point in a more healthy relationship to Sung Chan, to his one-time fiancée, and to Unamjung itself. Everything is as his father would have wanted.

So what's my problem? It is that the psychological portrait that I have painted, assuming it has validity, is not supported by the narrative. We, the audience, are more in touch with Bong Joo's conflicts than the writers. In flashbacks, we see that the relationship between the brothers is solid and that while Bong Joo readily admits to anger with his father for having lied about who was who and what was what, he never makes the connection between his rage at Sung Chan and his father's betrayal. He never comes to understand why his father chose the path that he did and, for that matter, never does Sung Chan. It doesn't seem to interest him. Once his father dies, Bong Joo's rage dissipates, as if the only concern of the filmmakers was the excuse for their characters to emote the broadest possible range of feeling rather than to understand how they got there. They rage, they endure and suffer, they accept. But they understand very little. Perhaps I am seeking to impose an Occidental ethic on what is still an Oriental culture. But I am not convinced. It's not that I demand or expect an analytical post-mortem, merely a minimal level of self-awareness. Other Korean dramas (Alone in Love, Dae Jang Geum, The King and I) manage to speak at length and insightfully about what makes people tick. It strikes me as wrong-headed to avoid it so categorically when the opportunity presents itself.

 - Leonard Norwitz



Theatrical Release: Originally aired in Korea on SBS, from June 17 to September 9, 2008

DVD Review: YA-Entertainment - Region 1 - NTSC

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Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime Approx 13 hours for Vol. 2 (26 hours for complete volume 1+2)

1.78:1 Original Aspect Ratio

16X9 enhanced
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

Audio Korean Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles English, none
Features Release Information:
Studio: YA-Entertainment

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen anamorphic - 1.78:1

Edition Details:
• 12 episodes (#13-24), approx. 65 min/episode
• This final volume published in 1 box set (Vol. 1 published in November, 2008)
• Gatefold box contains 5 discs
• Disc 5: The Making of The Grand Chef (58 minutes)

DVD Release Date: December 16, 2008




[see review of The Grand Chef, Vol. 1 for comments on Image, Sound and Operations HERE]

Extras : 8
Volume One of the series had no extra features. But Vol. 2 contains an excellent hour-long featurette on the making of the series. It intercuts interviews with the cast about their characters and journeys through casting and first rehearsals. We then follow the production through various challenges, like the weather, locating and shooting the various animals and marine life that would eventually be served up, and coordinating the 8 stand-ins for Unamjang. I was fascinated by the amount of input offered by the leads as to the how their characters should behave or even what they should say in any given situation. Right off the bat the asst. director asks Kim Rae-Won politely if it would be alright if the actor would cut his hair for the sake of his character. Imagine having a dialogue about such a thing in this country! Later on, Rae Won found it irresistible to direct scenes even when it wasn't his job. I was pleasantly relieved to see that Nam Sang Mi isn't at all like the foolish girl she plays in the show, and was surprised to hear Kim So Yeon (who plays the indecisive love interest between the brothers) whose normal voice was exceedingly fast but somehow not at all hurried, unlike her character who speaks in measured, almost pained cadences.


An amendment to my earlier comments about Image for Vol. 1: I neglected to mention that, like other YAE DVDs, this one is also not progressive, though in actual running practice outside of a computer, the image remains coherent.

Recommendation: 7
The Grand Chef is another Korean drama centering on food – beautifully, often inventively photographed - with engaging characters and excellent performances from Kim Rae Won, young Choi Jae Kwon, and all the veteran actors. Recommended for the performances, the food preparations, the locations and the basic story line.

 - Leonard Norwitz


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