Tagging “The Wandering Chef” only a culinary doc would be gravely unfair. It may have Jiho Im, the renowned cuisine master, as a subject, but it extends beyond talking taste, food habits or cooking techniques. Preparing meals and eating seems almost spiritual here, as its purpose is something more than fueling our bodies with nutrients. Food allows people to tie bonds of affection as well as show and canalize their emotions. It is the simplest of joys, an amalgamate of giving and sharing. But it can also reflect our yearnings and have power to revoke memories of close ones. For the director it is also a pretext to contemplate family ties
Jiho Im’σ approach to cooking is far from conventional, yet at the same time so down-to-earth, as he tries to follow the ways of nature and honor its gifts. For over 40 years, he has been traveling the Korean peninsula, searching for unique ingredients, such as wild plants and herbs, mysterious roots and velvet mosses. He has acquired a great knowledge of herbal medicine, taught to him by his parents. Delicacies like the soup made of pine nuts or the steamed shepherd’s purse are in his culinary repertoire. His numerous travels, initiated when he was very young, have earned him the nickname of Wandering Chef.
“People criticized me for not being able to stay in one place for long. No one knew I was searching for something. Only I knew,” explains Jiho Im. Slowly, as the film progresses, Jiho confesses his troubled family history, which constituted his character and the sense of uneasiness. With a grief he admits that he never cooked for his parents. “Could the longing be in my food?,” he asks, thinking about his biological mother, whom abandoned him, when he was too little to remember her.
That longing made him α successful chef, owner of a restaurant, serving extravaganza meals to high-class customers. But taking breaks from cooking in front of the cameras and for a sophisticated clientele, he hangs his fancy chef hat hook, and roams the country, connecting with local people and admiring the nature’s serene beauty. We accompany Jihi walking among the snowy mountain landscape. We watch him chatting with a perky elder lady, who collects sea algs for a living. And finally, we witness the beginning of the beautiful friendship, when he meets the 88-year-old Soon-Gyu Kim from a mountain village. Jihi helps her to pick some herbs and accepts the invitation for a meal in the small house where Soon-Guy lives with her husband. Jiho cooks for them in return. After a memorable feast, he promises to return, and he keeps his word.
He affectionately calls the couple grandma and grandpa and shares a unique bond with Soon-Gyu Kim, who seems to be a motherly figure for him. Whatever he cooks, they eat with joy, although sometimes they are baffled with his choice of ingredients, e.g. moss. “Grandma” laughs, why on Earth he wants to eat “stones’ clothes”, nevertheless is eager to try herself. Both she and her husband are full of admiration for his knowledge of herbs and watching him cooking the strangest plants or thorny twigs, say that the city boy knows the local nature’s gifts than the village people.
The heartwarming part is that Jiho, regardless for whom he cooks, behaves the same. He prepares dishes for his elder friends from the mountains with the heart and affection. Soon-Gyu Kim once remarks that he is always so happy cooking for them. Jiho enjoys cooking for people and believes that people should always enjoy what they eat. That joy of eating is visible throughout the movie, in the sounds of slurping, smacking and champing.
The wonderful direction by Hye-Reong Park, who has been working for major Korean TV broadcasters over 20 years, makes the crew invisible. Camerawork is watchful and observant, showing the characters and situations with a great delicacy, which helps to create an atmosphere of intimacy. The food takes the central stage when needed, and it is difficult to keep from drooling.
The director portrays her subjects with a touching care, making these 85 minutes a great lesson on empathy and humanity. In the touching climax, the act of preparing food becomes the ritual and a way to honor significant others. The history comes full circle, with the tales of Jiho’s past and his friendship with Soon-Gyu Kim reaching the symbolic conclusion. If you want to add to your curriculum the confession “I have cried over a documentary on food”, “The Wandering Chef” is your pick of movie.