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[Newsmaker] Why SK chief calls K-food the next big thing

Tycoon who leads S. Korea's 2nd-largest conglomerate embarks on unexpected mission to industrialize hansik. Experts say he might want to be more than just a businessman

SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won speaks during a banquet he hosted for UN ambassadors at a hansik restaurant in New York last month. (KCCI)
SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won speaks during a banquet he hosted for UN ambassadors at a hansik restaurant in New York last month. (KCCI)

In a surprising move, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won has recently stepped up as an evangelist for hansik, or Korean food, even though his sprawling energy-to-chip business has no food subsidiary.

Last month, he hosted a banquet at a fancy hansik restaurant in New York to invite a dozen UN ambassadors and introduced them Korean cuisine and its unique ingredients.

He even appeared in a TV show as a main host to discuss ways to nurture K-food as a potent industry that appeals to the global audience like K-pop and K-drama.

“If there are enough ideas and systems to support hansik’s industrialization, the potential seems almost unlimited,” Chey said during the six-episode SBS show, titled “Sikja Summit.” Sikja can be roughly translated into “food meets knowledge” in Korean.

The market potential actually looks high enough.

According to industry data compiled by the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp., the global food market is expected to exceed $9 trillion in 2024. Last year’s $8 trillion is more than 13 times larger than the market for semiconductor chips, Korea’s biggest export item.

Its ripple effect is also huge. A local think tank, run by Kyunghee University, estimates the nation’s hansik business generates about 23 trillion won ($16 billion) in economic impact per year, the equivalent of selling 520,000 vehicles.

But the potential has not yet been nurtured into a full-fledged industrial push. Rather, the nation’s whole hansik industry faces an existential crisis now.

Cho Hee-sook, a renowned hansik chef, pinpointed a talent shortage as the most urgent issue to tackle.

“It is a chronic issue that actually started decades ago,” she said during the show. “There has been no progress in the training system for hansik talent.”

In a recent survey conducted by Hansik Promotion Institute, only 23 percent of culinary students said they want to pursue their career in hansik. For those not choosing to do so, 43.8 percent said they are not just attracted to hansik, while 13.7 percent cited the harsh work environment.

Establishing an elite cooking school like France’s Le Cordon Bleu and Ferrandi may be a solution to attracting more talent into the hansik industry, but more fundamentally investments should be made to change the industrial structure drastically, said Kwon Woo-joong, the owner chef of KwonSookSoo, a Michelin two-star hansik restaurant in Seoul.

“More investments can change the industrial structure and pave the way for hansik’s premium strategy,” he said. “Like in the fields of art and sports, investments should be made to nurture culinary chefs, which would speed up the industrialization of K-food.”

Industry watchers agree that globalizing K-food is a different story from industrializing it.

While globalization is about raising awareness about hansik, turning Korean food into a competitive industry is about crafting the culture that work globally.

Chey who doubles as chairman of the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, seems to have a good understanding on the need to nurture hansik as one of the nation’s future growth drivers, according to industry watchers.

Based on discussions made throughout the TV show, Chey appears to have asked the KCCI to come up with more concrete ideas to facilitate hansik’s growth and its global reach ultimately.

SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won (center) appeared in the SBS TV show “Sikja Summit” along with celebrity TV hosts and star chefs. The six-episode show aired between Aug. 16-Sept. 20. (KCCI)
SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won (center) appeared in the SBS TV show “Sikja Summit” along with celebrity TV hosts and star chefs. The six-episode show aired between Aug. 16-Sept. 20. (KCCI)

“There have been numerous failed attempts to globalize K-food. Food is an essence of our culture but has not yet been fully embraced globally despite the recent frenzy about K-pop and K-drama,” said Oh Il-sun, head of market tracker Korea CXO Institute.

Saying he was pleasantly surprised to see a chaebol leader appearing in a TV show, Oh added Chey could play a role in speeding up the overall discussions on hansik’s industrialization.

“Chey is a distinctive chaebol leader who openly communicates with the public. His friendly image could help renew awareness about K-food and its global potential."

Other industry watchers say that he seems to be wanting to be more than a business tycoon -- someone who could contribute in economic growth and cultural prosperity of South Korea.

In the final episode of “Sikja Summit,” which aired on Sept. 20, Chey made it clear that his push for hansik’s industrial success was not a one-time event.

“It is my mission to nurture hansik as an industry that plays the nation’s future growth driver,” he said.



By Lee Ji-yoon (jylee@heraldcorp.com)
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