The Wandering Chef – Film Review

Hye-Reong Park’s unassuming documentary The Wandering Chef that follows Jiho Im, a Korean celebrity chef on his personal journey that inspires his culinary prowess is less of a culinary documentary and more of an exploration of the internal narrative of the man that gives birth to his impressive oeuvre.

A forefather of the Foraged Food Movement, everything about Im is centred upon the natural. From a young age his departure from home, prompted by the displacement he had felt from knowing the truth about his birth mother had led him on a meandering path that is unconstrained by time but ebbed and flowed with his emotions as he comes to terms with his loss. Acquiring an authentic and natural persona himself, perhaps in part due to his deep respect for mother nature – he confesses to the camera at one point, his admiration for an elderly couple living amidst the rugged countryside for “conforming to nature” in their way of life. The film thus begins suitably on the rugged shores of the sea with Im striking up a conversation with an elderly woman diver. His openness and almost filial warmth which puts her immediately at ease is the same natural style with which he helms a kitchen of international chefs as we are shown later on.

With surprising honesty, we witness early in the film, the reason for Im’s meanderings. They begin as an escape from a life that to him was no longer true as he comes to terms with learning that his mother was not the biological mother he thought she was. Im confesses that it was his emotional responses to his personal tragedy that first took him to flight. His journey towards becoming a chef was characterized initially by the need for survival and saw him booted out of kitchens for his lack of skill, but eventually with perseverance realizes his deep talent for cooking as he amalgamates his love for natural and forgotten ingredients with a desire to create restorative and nourishing meals.

Structured suitably by a free-flowing style, we enter his narrative as we witness his encounters with different individuals; his interactions with an elderly couple take centre stage. Unconstrained by time, the film is made in observational mode, Park allows us to observe the truth of the encounters to interpret for ourselves the emotions that fill the spaces between the characters in many unspoken moments with no regard for the time that elapses in between. It is unimportant how much time has gone by, what does matter is that each dish, each tribute is brought into fruition as a labour of love, accompanied by the special healing that only food made with love can bring.

The film is a retelling of Chef Im’s personal story of catharsis. Seemingly trapped in a cycle of grieving the loss of his ‘mothers’, his craft unfolds to be an expression of his sorrow as well as that of love and longing.

Contributed by:

Bernadette Giam