[Herald Interview] Food seen through the eyes of a documentary filmmaker

[Herald Interview] Food seen through the eyes of a documentary filmmaker

Lee Wook-jung, documentary producer and CEO of Mind at Play: Food Odyssey, poses in his office in Seoul during an interview with The Korea Herald on Friday (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)

Conceptualizing and categorizing foods while filming a food documentary series is the strategy behind documentary producer-turned-CEO Lee Wook-jung’s 30-year career. Lee pulls it all together at the end of the show, emphasizing the overall theme that all food is linked.

Speaking to the Korea Herald on his first day of quarantine after a business trip to Argentina where he went to capture the country’s signature pizza, Lee seemed thrilled and rather eager to unveil his new series, “Food Chronicle.” The series is set to be released in August on local streaming platform service TVing.

Lee began his career as a producer for KBS TV in 1994 and has built a unique style of food-themed documentaries around the world, connecting them to culture and anthropology. His best-known works include “Noodle Road (2008)” and “Wook’s Food Odyssey (2014)”. In 2020, he set up his own production company, Mind at Play: Food Odyssey.

“Noodle Road,” which was filmed in 10 countries over a two-year period, won documentary awards at home and abroad, including a Peabody Awards, the broadcast industry’s equivalent to a Pulitzer Prize, as well as the ABU Prize. The play opened a new path for Korean documentary filmmakers working on the theme of food, which was previously limited to showing Korean cuisine and popular restaurants in the city.

Lee films the making of a trout pizza in San Carlos De Bariloche, located in the Patagonia region of Argentina, in February.  (Lee Wook-jung's Instagram)

Lee films the making of a trout pizza in San Carlos De Bariloche, located in the Patagonia region of Argentina, in February. (Lee Wook-jung’s Instagram)

“The real ideas of my works did not come out of standardized restaurants, kitchens and dining halls. I intentionally traveled to rural villages and followed their own traditions, customs and cultural events to learn, study and transmit the origins and cooking styles of each cuisine,” Lee said, mentioning that his approach is even more relevant today, since viewers already know and have tried the cuisines of the world.

“When I started making documentaries, half of the viewers had never tasted a taco before. Today, almost everyone knows what tacos look like and how they taste. A documentary must dig deeper in a dish and find out what it was like before it was exported and globalized,” Lee said.

With his academic background in English literature and cultural anthropology and his culinary training at London’s Cordon Bleu, Lee has become a jack-of-all-trades in the field of world cuisines. He has the skills to quickly trace and understand the underlying culture and history of a specific dish on the scene, never hesitating to hold the camera to the food on the table in locations around the world.

His new documentary is set to feature nine different cuisines, which are divided into three main categories: entrees, wraps and layers.

A chef preparing baklava in Istanbul, Turkey, in January.  (Lee Wook-jung's Instagram)

A chef preparing baklava in Istanbul, Turkey, in January. (Lee Wook-jung’s Instagram)

“Any dish can fit into one of the three,” Lee said, explaining pizza and jeon as entrees, dumplings, tacos and ssam as wraps and sandwiches, cakes and sushi. like diapers.

Aside from the convenience, practicality and portability of each menu, Lee emphasizes the aesthetic appearance of a dish as a very important factor. “We see waves on the shores of the sea and geological strata on the rocks. Much of what we see and feel in nature applies to cooking and food design.

During his recent trip to Buenos Aires, Lee was invited to a spontaneous tango performance while trying pizza. In a city with the highest number of pizzerias per capita in the world, Lee felt the tango movements linked to the sadness and adversities that working-class immigrants experienced in Argentina. The immigrants’ consumption of pizza as a daily meal and the restrained but vibrant tango dancing were captured in Lee’s documentary on location.

Poster for “Wook’s Food Odyssey,” the 2014 KBS global food documentary directed and produced by Lee. (KBS)

“Things happen in unexpected ways and that’s the charm of being a documentary producer. You are invited to locations that are not on your filming itinerary. It’s OK, as long as you have the vision to connect the dots with your theme, which for me has been, and always will be, the origins of food.

The documentary producer also reflected on how many people see food on their screens these days. “I often see people of my generation criticizing and devaluing the mukbang. But I think it goes to the heart of what it means to humans to eat. We share and talk around the food on our table, and in a digitalized world, we can do that by creating such live content with global neighbors.

Besides filming documentaries, much of Lee’s company work involves doing social good to communities through food. Having partnered with major corporations and restaurants around Seoul, Lee regularly delivers packed lunches to poor neighborhoods, while creating a sustainable environment for independent restaurateurs.

The director’s new nine-part series will be released exclusively on TVing in mid-August.

By Kim Hae-yeon (hykim@heraldcorp.com)

James C. Tibbs