(aka "The Grand Chef" or "Gourmet" or "Sikgaek " or "Shikgaek")


directed by Choi Jong Soo
Korea 2008


The Series : 8 (of 10)
First there was the manhwa (comic): HERE - then a 2007 movie: Le Grand Chef, and finally the 2008 television series with the same title.

Bong Joo and Sung Chan are raised like brothers by the owner and head chef of one of Korea's most prestigious restaurants: Unamjung. Bong Joo is the blood son of aging Chef Oh and expects to take over the family business on his father's retirement, which is imminent. But Oh has a particular affection for his adopted son, Sung Chan, whose interest in becoming a master chef has not remained consistent over the years.

As our story gets under way, Sung Chan has returned to Unamjung, evidently afire with a newfound determination to be the best that he can be. Bong Joo is the elder and the more ambitious of the two and he is also feels appropriately entitled to his inheritance, which entails marriage to the beautiful Joo Hee whose interest in the younger brother is not entirely clear.

The difficulty for Chef Oh is that Bong Joo does not particularly want to carry on the conservative traditions of his father, but prefers to export the glories of Korean cuisine internationally and scale its offerings accordingly. Oh is worried that both cannot be done without undermining traditional values. Put simply, if Bong Joo can source his fish, meat and vegetables at a better price and still maintain quality good enough for most of his clients, why should he pay more just to satisfy the god of cooking for the freshest & finest ingredients! He calculates that Unamjung's reputation will do the work for him. Sung Chan leans to the more traditional ways, which might not be the ticket for a New Age

So Chef Oh devises a competition that he feels should resolve all questions. But just at the critical moment, Sung Chan learns that it is he, and not his brother, whom he clearly loves and respects, who is the legitimate heir to the late royal chef and not Bong Joo's family, a fact which Chef Oh has deliberately kept secret all these years. To avoid further embarrassment for the Oh family, Sung Chan leaves on an odyssey that takes him far from restaurant politics, though he can't resist keeping his hand in the food business.

While away, Sung Chan has a series of adventures, perhaps the most emotionally powerful is his finding the aging maker of knives in seriously failing health. Times have been hard for the old man lately, who may have little time left to reconcile with his son, now in prison. I’ll say no more about how this all develops, the better for your discovery of it. But suffice to say the episode is worth the entire set. It is also here in this story, among many other places, that Kim Rae Won shows what he is made of. Rae Won puts me in mind of James Dean, who was so good at showing what was on the surface to be the tip of an emotional iceberg – or, rather a volcano, ready to erupt. Rae Won has humor, he is charmingly awkward with romance, yet he can be tough, and he is utterly convincing in a broad range of roles (to wit, the films: My Little Bride and Mr. Socrates). Kim Raw Won is a national treasure.

In a way Kim is the good news and the bad for this series, for hardly anyone else dominates the screen as persuasively. But if anyone comes close, it is young Choi Jae Kwon in the supportive role of Shik Gaek (coincidentally the same name as the comic on which the series is based), fellow kitchen intern and friend of Sung Chan. Shik Gaek holds onto the belief that Sung Chan will return to Unamjung even though he has no idea why he left. It's a device used in many a play, but rarely do we find ourselves as committed to the belief as the character. Shik Gaek holds a kind of na´ve faith that causes him to stick his neck out in ways that a "normal" person, even a friend, would hesitate to do. His moments of disappointment and ecstasy are so intimate I dare you watch without taking
your eyes off him.

Two other principal males: Kwon Oh Joong as Oh Bong Joo and Choi Bool Ahn as Head Chef Oh supply the morally confused antagonist and the ethically confused father respectively. You may remember Kwon Oh Joong as the scar-faced lieutenant in Damo. His character suffers even more here, even though he tries hard to displace that suffering by attacking his brother. The script and the actor who delivers it are better than other recent Korean TV series at conveying the pain of his dilemma. Choi Bool Am has been active in Korean cinema for 40 years. On the little screen he played the part of the emperor in the hit series, Palace, and here he brings the necessary gravitas to the role of a man burdened by divided obligations and loyalties.

The Grand Chef favors the men: they are the more interesting, more well-rounded characters, and the actors do a wonderful job at bringing dimension to what are already good outlines. As the story develops, it is primarily the envious male chefs in the kitchen and various business and crime figures that give the drama its edge. The two principal women - Nam Sang Mi as Jin Soo and Kim So Yun as Joo Hee – are offered nothing like the breath or scale of the emotional range of the men. Jin Soo is a fiery, wannabe news reporter who gets by on luck, charm and her good looks – and not much else. She has a habit of talking to herself to such as extent that we can't tell if the actress who plays her is very good since she violates one of the basic acting school lessons: feel it, don't show it. Sang Mi is always showing it. I guess it makes her character somewhat endearing considering how not very smart she is.

Joo Hee is so low key here as to be make Kim So Yun all but unrecognizable, for this is the same actress who was so amazing at projecting the ruthless and vulnerable dichotomy of Young MI in All About Eve. After a flirtation with feature film in Seven Swords, So Yun has returned to TV where she has yet to find her muse. Her Joo Hee has evident emotional connections with both of the leading men in this story, but something holds her back from exploring or expressing what that might be. (I'm sure we'll learn more about this in Vol. 2.)

While there is no new ground breaking in The Grand Chef, it is a very well-made series with several exceptional performances and a considerable amount of extended local photography – more, I think, than any Korean series I've seen so far. There is far less reliance on the by now tired technique of instant flashback. On the other hand, the device of the competition is back in full force – actually a series of competitions - to sort out another rightful heir. And we have the two competing brothers, one of whose histories involves a curious secret going back to the last royal chef who was removed when the Japanese took over the country before WWII.

Later in the story, a national contest takes center stage where Sung Chan's newfound friends compete against his alma mater, among others. The organizers want the contestants to address more meaty questions, such as where to find the best charcoal or which cow will yield the highest ratio of top quality beef to fat. While this takes the participants on a tour of Korea's stockyards, other contests bring them to the country's fisheries and forests, while another leads them on a quest to find the best butcher in the country. In part, it's all just an excuse – and a very good excuse it is – to introduce new characters to the story and take the camera out of the set and explore the country.

The series' 24 episodes picked up a loyal following that sagged a little just before the last episode, but the finale was several points higher than any previous. YAE has divided the series' 24 episodes into two volumes of 12 episodes each: 4 discs for Vol. 1, 5 discs for Vol. 2.

Recommendation: 8
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. I plan a follow-up on Vol. 2 in a few weeks. Warmly Recommended.


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

DVD Review: YA Entertainment (Vol. 1) - Region 1 - NTSC

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YA Entertainment

Region 1 - NTSC


1:78 Aspect Ratio

16X9 enhanced
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

Audio Korean Dolby Digital 2.0
Subtitles English, none
Features Release Information:

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen anamorphic - 1:78

Edition Details:
• 12 episodes, approx. 65 min/episode
• Published in 1 box set (with Vol. 2 to follow in December, 2008)
• Gatefold box contains 4 discs

DVD Release Date: November 11, 2008



Image: 7/6
The score of 7 indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other standard definition DVDs on a 10-point scale for SD DVDs. The second score represents a value for the image on a 10-point scale that accommodates both standard and high-definition video discs – where any score above 7 for an SD is outstanding, since the large majority of high definition DVDs are 8-10.

Originally broadcast in HD, the image offered by YAE is excellent: Colors are natural, even under difficult lighting conditions such as exist in the kitchen. Contrast varies considerably, but appropriately, with the many venues where the action takes place, taking us into every nook and cranny of Korean urban and rural life. There are a few too many close-ups of people eating for my taste, but the photography of before and after food preparation is scrumptious.


Audio & Music : 7/7~4
Like most Korean TV dramas, even those in broadcast in High Definition, the audio is front-directed stereo. Music, effects and dialogue are nicely balanced and clear. On the other hand, there is something about the music for Korean TV dramas, particularly those that aren't primarily love stories or fantasies that I find disturbing and peculiarly wrong-headed: the music that appears over the menu is the worst case example of canned, high-energy noise, and it reappears from time to time in most episodes when the music supervisor can't think of anything better to throw in. While The Grand Chef certainly has its moments of suspense, the series does not warrant such trite glops of caffeine. Fortunately, most of the score is tastefully in accord with the drama as it unfolds, often taking a back seat, where I feel it belongs in a series such as this.

Translation & Subtitles : 9/9
We all know about food, but not necessarily cuisine, and most of us city folk know precious little about how our food gets to the kitchen, let alone from the kitchen to our plates. The various challenges in The Grand Chef educate us by virtue of a variety of directorial tricks for each of the competitions. One such device is the televising of one of the major contests with a good deal of intercutting between the competitors and judges, while the announcers describe what is going on in detail. These sequences offer challenges for the translators, whom I felt were very much on their marks here and just about everywhere else. The subtitles are white, smallish, and outlined in black for easy reading against any background.

Operations & Box Design : 9/9
Like Super Rookie, the names of the stars appear in English over the episode's credits as they and their characters are introduced. A nice trend – let's see more of it, please. The menu is uncomplicated, again in English (as is always the case with YAE), with animated thumbnails for chapters. YAE offers a sturdy single case with a magnetic foldover clasp. The box opens fully to four separate pages, each with its own disc.


On a related note, I gather from YAE that the reason this series appears in two volumes with only 12 episodes each is that there were significant delays in their receiving the later episodes. The high tariff isn't due to having to present the series in two volumes but the licensing fee for this particular show. Such fees vary considerably from studio to studio and drama to drama, making The Grand Chef one of the most expensive YAE has offered.

Extras : 0
Volume One of the series contains no extra features. We can expect them on disc five of Volume Two, due out before Christmas.

 - Leonard Norwitz


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