Impressions

Harvesting Ginseng in Korea

Eric Ripert, world-renowned chef of Le Bernardin, shares tales from his travels.

Highly subjective takes on life’s most interesting experiences.


What was your most surreal travel experience?

I had a TV show called “Avec Eric” that nobody ever watched (it did win two Emmys though!). During season three, I ended up shooting behind the DMZ in between South Korea and North Korea. When they had established the DMZ, a few weeks later they realized they had forgotten one village in the middle. And that is where we were authorized to go film — this village locked between both sides. There are all these pieces of metal separating both sides and while you’re on the south side, you can see the soldiers on the north side looking at you. It’s very, very strict. The military is 24/7 controlling it all. There are probably two or three miles of land, sometimes more, between both posts. There’s a lot of wilderness and a lot of mines, so it’s very dangerous and you’re not supposed to go there.

So now that village, because they were forgotten, when they went to report that they were in the middle, North Korea and South Korea decided that the people who live in that village could go see their direct relatives in North Korea and in South Korea. They have the freedom to go there and then to come back. They are the only ones who can do that. So I decided to go see the people living in that small village, probably about a thousand people living there, a couple thousand. They are farmers and grow vegetables and ginseng on the land. They also harvest chestnuts. So we went there and we got stopped at the South Korean border. They took our passports and they said they will give them back to us when we come back. The entire military force was looking at us. They made us get out of the car. They checked our car. And then we crossed the bridge.

When we got to the village the people welcomed us very warmly. They were very nice. And they decided that they would show us where they harvested the ginseng. So we went and spent the day with them harvesting ginseng. Then we went to the fields where they had bok choy and many other vegetables. We could hear the South Koreans and the North Koreans shooting at each other all day long, while making sure that the bullets did not hurt anyone. They kept the bullets very high, maybe like 20 yards, on top of our heads. But we could hear and feel them flying all day long. They would send rockets and we would hear the explosions. We never saw them, just heard the noise. And as soon as you got out of the village or went off the road, or even when they were harvesting the chestnuts, there were screams everywhere saying, “The mines! Be careful of the mines! Mines! Mines!” We were afraid because everybody was in or around the trees gathering chestnuts, and the trees were near those mines. They said, “Come with us,” so we did. And I asked, “But the mines? You’re not afraid of the mines?” And they said, “No. someone dies every three, four years, but it’s OK.” So I said, “OK.”

In that village they have a tiny, tiny museum which is a bunker that shares the history of the war, which we visited. We ate with the locals and they were really the warmest people. They were making fun of us. Maybe because I have white hair, I’m not sure. And then I was trying to emulate what they were doing, trying to help harvest the beans, and then they really made fun of me because I was very slow and inadequate. I still have no idea how we got the permit to go there. It was wild because you were very much aware of the danger the entire time. The bullets on top of your head reminded you.


The most dramatic sunsets and sunrises?

I would say Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It’s absolutely unbelievable. Next to Siem Reap. All those old temples, forgotten for centuries. They were discovered in the beginning of the twentieth century. Because the weather is extremely hot and humid during the day, you basically wake up at four in the morning. Your guide usually takes you by bike, with you in the cart. Then you walk through some of the most beautiful and iconic temples and see the sunsets coming. It’s amazing because you’re in the dark walking for maybe 40 minutes. And then suddenly the sunset is there and you discover all those surreal temples and those trees, banyan trees with those gigantic roots covering the temples. It’s breathtaking. So you walk around, then perhaps go back to the hotel for either a late breakfast or early lunch. You take a nap and then go back in the afternoon with your guide and they show you more temples, usually elevated on small hills. I remember one of them, where you could see the sunset falling between the doors. The sunset falls there slowly and you have thousands of people watching in silence. It’s just gorgeous.


The best street food?

There’s a lot of places that have fantastic street food in Thailand and Bangkok, but I choose Singapore. In Singapore they have what they call hawker centers, basically centers in the middle of the city in different areas where you have a lot of small vendors offering different specialties. So one guy sells you chicken feet, the other one sells you chili crab, the other one sells you noodles. And there are thousands of them, all these families cooking different specialties for you. You go there and you can pick and choose whatever you want and then eat in the center where there are all these tables. It’s so unique and special. I’ve never seen it anywhere else, never seen so much variety anywhere else. The chili crab, of course, is amazing. Really Singaporean, it’s fantastic. They also sell this fruit, the durian. It’s considered a delicacy and it looks like breadfruit. They make ice cream with it. I wanted to try it but I couldn’t eat it. The lady was laughing because she knew I couldn’t. It stinks. It’s so stinky you’re not allowed to bring it on a plane [in certain countries]. You’re not allowed to travel with it. It has a lot of restrictions. The smell is like a rotten Camembert that was forgotten underground. For a year. And the more stinky it is, the better it tastes. They have a lot of different specialties because Singapore is in between Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. And you have a big Muslim community there. So you can have a lot of different specialties from those countries, a lot of curries. The hawker centers are just amazing.


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Our Contributors

Eric Ripert

Eric Ripert is the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, the 3-Michelin-star restaurant, as well as Aldo Sohm Wine Bar. Ripert is the vice chairman of the board of City Harvest, working to bring together New York’s top chefs and restaurateurs to raise funds and increase the quality and quantity of food donations to New York’s neediest.

Giorgia Ascolani Illustrator

Giorgia Ascolani is a half-New Zealander, half-Italian content artist currently based in London. She has created content for Zac Posen, Inglot Cosmetics, Prada, and Mulberry, to name a few.

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