Have you ever imagined a meal in which every course is a different dessert?
As we step out of a restaurant after having consumed multiple plates of impressive food, we often remember the dessert. And it isn’t a coincidence.
The dream of substituting our meal with something sweet comes true at JL Dessert Bar in Hannam District (Itaewon), southern Seoul, Korea.
This place doesn’t stop at offering á-la-carte desserts such as cakes and ice cream like other dessert shops. Justin Lee serves curated dessert plates, macarons and petit gateaux often found at fine-dining restaurants paired with alcoholic beverages. His ability to seamlessly create, design and execute these dishes makes a difference. One of the steady sellers at JL Dessert Bar is a plate of green, orange, and red colour cherry tomatoes with yogurt and basil, served alongside parmesan cheese ice cream. And this tomato plate, which is more savoury with a hint of sweet, is paired with a dry bubbly drink from Spain. Another dish features watermelon and is paired with a cocktail made with Campari to match the vibrant colour. Diners can also choose their own drinks to go with their sweets, ranging from wine to whiskey.
“Just like Koreans pair soju with pork barbeque, why can’t desserts bring out the desire for certain drinks?”
That was the thinking that drove Chef Justin Lee to become the mastermind behind the idea of mixing curated desserts and drinks. He is not hesitant to get out of his comfort zone and uses ingredients that do not usually make it on to a dessert plate, such as avocados. Chef Justin often pulls ingredients down from the wall of his bar and explains how he gets his flavours in each dessert or what can be combined in a cake.
His dessert bar has bar stools and yes, a wall filled with bottles of alcohol alongside chocolate and other ingredients used to make desserts. Like regular bartenders, Lee likes talking to his guests to learn about their tastes while he plates their food in front of them. Chef Justin loves making specialty cakes with flavours and textures that customers choose.
Since a bar-style dessert spot is rare, JL Dessert Bar has become a hot spot among professional chefs and those in the F&B industry. Many come to learn how Lee works, asking for everything available on the menu and even asking to collaborate on pop-up events (e.g. pairing desserts with traditional Korean liquors).
Born in Korea in 1981, Justin Lee is a world-renowned Pastry Chef, Sosa Ingredients Asia-Pacific Brand Ambassador and Valrhona Chocolate Pastry Consultant. He has trained hard, learning from first class chefs since 2003. Developing his culinary competence steadily, Justin Lee worked at several well-known restaurants in Korea (among them, Park Hyatt, Busan), Australia (Il Centro, Brisbane) and New Zealand (Clooney and Miann, Auckland). Even though he opened his own dessert bar in 2016, he persistently tries to develop his culinary skills and got the 2nd place at the “2018 Valrhona C3 Chocolate Competition”.
1. Chef Justin, when did your passion for culinary and pastry art start?
In 2012 I moved to New Zealand with my family in order to find a better work-life balance. I desperately wanted to work at Clooney Restaurant, and the Head Chef Des Harris only had a pastry role available. I immediately fell in love with the pastry world. I did self-study and I asked many pastry chefs for advice. Then, I realised that it is difficult to find restaurants (both causal and fine dining) that serve first class desserts. So, I decided to fill the gap.
2. And Korea loves pastry…
Yes, Pastry Art is reaching the top level in Korea. All the foreign Chefs who visit Seoul are surprised about our pastry standards.
Korean people are strongly motivated to learn. Many young chefs move to Europe for studying and training experiences, then they come back after at least ten years and they open their own concept. Culinary and Pastry standards are getting higher in a natural way, and also our customers look for high-quality food and desserts now.
3. What about your relationship with Frozen Desserts?
Unfortunately, I have never been to Italy, the birthplace of gelato. I had planned a trip this year but COVID-19 didn’t allow me to do that. Anyway, I mainly worked at Italian restaurants before starting my pastry journey. I love Italian food and culture, I would love to discover its cities, attend a soccer match and participate in a gelato course. In the past, I created gelato recipes from scratch, but after meeting Siyeon Yoo, Asia-Pacific Brand Ambassador Chef of Carpigiani, all my recipes radically improved.
I always include gelato in my dishes. I believe that gelato’s temperature, texture and flavour find the perfect fit when pairing with other elements… Every day I go to the local market, searching for new seasonal ingredients to experiment new tastes and combinations.
4. Could you share with us one of your favourite new recipes?
Of course. Let me share with you the newest addition to the menu, “CARBONARA”.
Almost every cooking method is a process for taking ‘natural’ sweetness from ingredients, so I think that all the ingredients might be used in pastry art. That’s my philosophy. I’m always looking for new inspirations and I love using savoury ingredients in pastry.
5. Your tips for young students who want to become successful Pastry Chefs?
- Learn how to taste any type of food and beverage
- Develop recipes with your own touch and colour
- Approach the creation of a menu as you were a Chef de Cuisine
- Use seasonal ingredients, and do not focus only on sweetness. Put all the tastes on the menu
- Your desserts shall touch each part of your tongue, especially when paired with beverages or unusual ingredients, textures, balances
- Aesthetics are important in Pastry; Taste is a priority.
6. Which Pastry Trends do you foresee?
Today, customer’s demand is so various… Trends change very fast here. Classics are still requested; predictions are hard to make. Anyway, I verified that people love tasting gelato at home during COVID-19 times. So, I keep preparing gelato courier services!
7. Your next steps?
I’ll keep working with Foreign Chefs and I will offer something fresh to my customers. I hope to open a second location of my dessert bar in Singapore soon.