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The Most Popular Buddhist Nun Cook — in Manhattan

By Alexis Cheung

South Korean Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan and her friend, the French chef Eric Ripert in New York City.
 
Gabriela Herman
South Korean Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan and her friend, the French chef Eric Ripert in New York City.

On a recent Tuesday morning in June, the Zen Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan bounded across 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue toward Central Park and the French chef Eric Ripert, who stood on the corner patiently waiting. Over 7,000 miles away from her Chunjinam hermitage in South Korea, she had arrived in New York a few days earlier — to cook for 60 guests at Ripert’s restaurant, Le Bernardin, in honor of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.

Kwan had already cooked at Ripert’s restaurant once, back in 2015. But that was before fame found her — when Jeff Gordinier shared her story in T magazine (“Jeong Kwan, the Philosopher Chef”), which led in part to Kwan’s episode in the third season of “Chef’s Table.” While she would again serve her traditional temple cuisine, this time her guests knew to expect an exquisite, maybe even transcendent, vegan meal, the kind that has captivated the elite food world.

Gabriela HermanThis was Kwan’s third trip to New York but her first time walking through the park.
This was Kwan’s third trip to New York but her first time walking through the park.

For the occasion, Kwan hauled 23 boxes across the Pacific, filled with 62 bowl sets, a 15-year-old soy sauce, two kinds of kimchi, a variety of homegrown vegetables and homemade sauces. A team of four from Korea would help her, as would the Los Angeles chef Kwang Uh and his assistant. But first, she would walk.

“Sleep well?” Ripert asked as a greeting.

Gabriela HermanOutside Le Bernardin, waiting for a car to arrive, Kwan quietly meditated
Outside Le Bernardin, waiting for a car to arrive, Kwan quietly meditated
Gabriela HermanOn the way downtown, Kwan checked Kakao Talk instant messenger on her phone, then flashed a photo of her and Ripert on Facebook.
On the way downtown, Kwan checked Kakao Talk instant messenger on her phone, then flashed a photo of her and Ripert on Facebook.

Kwan nodded, bringing her palms to a prayer before gently bowing. Then she looked up, flashed a jubilant thumbs up and gave Ripert a kind of Buddhist fist bump, which he gamely returned. At this hour, the sun was still low, the air still cool and the park refreshingly uncrowded. Ripert guided her along his usual route to Le Bernardin and, despite the language barrier, the two conversed with relative ease.

“This is your temple!” Kwan exclaimed of the park to Ripert, a fellow Buddhist whom she first met in 2014 — when he was in Korea exploring temple food for his show, “Avec Eric.” This was her first time in Central Park. “She’s very spontaneous in her decisions,” Ripert explained. “You never know what to expect.” As they neared the summer stage, Kwan suddenly stopped mid-stride, then carefully placed one foot in front of the other to suggest a walking meditation. “O.K.,” Ripert shrugged. “Le Bernardin at 5 o’clock,” he said, pointing to his watch, referencing their glacial pace.

Gabriela HermanKwan is considering writing a cookbook, and met with a potential photographer at Té Company during her visit. “My vision for the book is if my daughter were getting married, I’d give this to her,” she explained.
Kwan is considering writing a cookbook, and met with a potential photographer at Té Company during her visit. “My vision for the book is if my daughter were getting married, I’d give this to her,” she explained.
Gabriela HermanShe enjoyed a meal at abcV, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new plant-based restaurant.
She enjoyed a meal at abcV, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new plant-based restaurant.

Still they walked slowly, mindfully, as if traversing a tightrope across a ravine. After a few minutes, Kwan spun around and started sauntering backward, signalling the session’s end while playfully posing for the camera. Later, near a rocky outlook, she plucked a hanging tree leaf, then popped the morsel into her mouth. “No,” Ripert said, waving his hands to indicate it wasn’t edible. In Korea, this is simply how she sources ingredients: In addition to cultivating an unruly garden, she forages ingredients from the mountains and the sea, with little but her own curiosity to guide her.

Kwan, who is 60, left home for the monastery at 17, and her approach to food remains rooted in her Buddhist practice: “The food is influenced by the mind of the cook,” she explained through a translator. Depending on that mind-set, the meal “can be poison or medicine.”

Gabriela HermanKwan and Ripert visited the Union Square Greenmarket, where they had a great time with some fresh cherries — and exchanged beet recipes.
Kwan and Ripert visited the Union Square Greenmarket, where they had a great time with some fresh cherries — and exchanged beet recipes.
Gabriela HermanKwan’s cooking mind-set involves four things: contemplating the people who are going to eat, choosing the best ingredients for the guests, understanding which recipes will work for their age range and — of course — delivering good energy.
Kwan’s cooking mind-set involves four things: contemplating the people who are going to eat, choosing the best ingredients for the guests, understanding which recipes will work for their age range and — of course — delivering good energy.

After a brief seated meditation near a muddy pond, Ripert pointed out wildlife to Kwan: two turtles treading water, a slender egret in the shade, a duo of ducks. She nodded in recognition, then gestured toward ivory flowers, their petals as translucent as tissue paper. Eventually the trail twisted upward, spitting Kwan and Ripert out onto Central Park South. Here the city thrummed, crowds thronged and general congestion spilled everywhere. Yet Kwan remained unperturbed.

Despite her recent exposure, Kwan remains profoundly rooted — and suggests that her life hasn’t much changed. She has travelled more, and seen an increase in the number of visitors to the monastery, but “otherwise,” she says, “it’s the same. I feel blessed to share and cook with people.”

Gabriela Herman“It’s pretty amazing,” Ripert says of Kwan’s food. “The intensity, purity and precision of flavors which becomes harmony, of course.” This was the last course she served at Le Bernardin.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Ripert says of Kwan’s food. “The intensity, purity and precision of flavors which becomes harmony, of course.” This was the last course she served at Le Bernardin.
Gabriela Herman“It’s like seeing a good friend,” Ripert said of his relationship with Kwan. “Nothing changes.”
“It’s like seeing a good friend,” Ripert said of his relationship with Kwan. “Nothing changes.”

Still, “It’s a little bit of a distraction, no?” Ripert probed.

“It’s another way to learn the practice,” Kwan said. “If it becomes a distraction I’ll stop everything, but I’m not influenced by outer circumstances.” The great paradox of the enlightened is often that their transcendence seems tethered to the earth. Kwan’s own stature, although small, is preternaturally steady: She walks without wavering, and her gestures are fluid.

Gabriela HermanKwan visited downtown New York for the first time. “I like it,” she said. “The smaller buildings, it’s more peaceful.”
Kwan visited downtown New York for the first time. “I like it,” she said. “The smaller buildings, it’s more peaceful.”
Gabriela HermanShe and chef Eric Ripert meditated on this rock during her visit to the city.
She and chef Eric Ripert meditated on this rock during her visit to the city.

But she is also quick and playful. And like foraging for ingredients back home, she let her curiosity lead the way during her time in New York. For the first time, she tasted Lebanese food, ordered a large iced coffee from a street vendor and rode the subway. In between meetings, she stole snatches of sleep (in the back seat of cars; tucked into the corner of a tea shop). And the day before her big meal, while wandering the Union Square Greenmarket, she ripped open an heirloom tomato with her bare hands to bite into its juicy flesh.

When asked about being embraced by a world known for its outsize egos, Kwan deferred to the dharma: “If you want to be inspired and create, you need to empty yourself out and accept and let desire go,” she explained. “Too much ego and you cannot accept new things.”

As for missing the monastery, she said, “I’m happy here right now.”