Chef Corey Lee and Hyundai Marry Korean Craft With the Future of Food

At the automaker’s innovation center in Singapore, the celebrated chef devises a tech-driven, seed-to-table restaurant concept that connects traditional Korean cuisine with advances in agricultural technology.

At the Hyundai Motor Group Innovation Center Singapore (HMGICS), which opened this past November, innovation ventures far beyond the automated manufacturing of their electric vehicles. The future-thinking facility is now home to Na Oh, a tech-driven seed-to-table Korean restaurant concept spearheaded by California-based chef Corey Lee. The James Beard winner cut his teeth as chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry before venturing out on his own and becoming the first Korean to earn three Michelin Stars for Benu, the acclaimed San Francisco culinary destination whose deeply nuanced menu fuses contemporary Korean and Cantonese influences with western techniques and local produce. 

Na Oh takes much of what cemented Benu’s success but applies it to casual dining—an idea that unfolded organically. Hyundai initially sought Lee’s perspective on building customer relationships, but the conversation soon pivoted to the potential for a restaurant partnership at HMGICS. Lee was motivated to venture beyond cuisine and connect traditional Korean craft with the advances in agriculture technology and HMGICS’s sustainable offerings. Na Oh, which translates to “moving from inside out” in Korean, sits at that nexus. Expect a meticulously crafted four-course prix fixe seasonal menu inspired by Korean traditions—Pyongyang-style cold noodles, buckwheat and mugunji jeon, butterfish gamasot—that diners enjoy in a calming interior replete with Korean artisan wares and whose layout honors traditional hanok homes. 

After experiencing Na Oh and HMGICS firsthand, Surface broke down its top five most memorable features.

Bringing seasonality to Singapore

The island nation’s year-round tropical climate means temperatures rarely fall below 75 degrees, so Na Oh’s menu will rotate seasonally with a careful produce selection designed to mimic its respective seasons. “There are dishes you have at different times of the year and certain preparations unique to specific seasons or a specific Korean holiday,” Lee says. “We want that to be part of the restaurant.” The inaugural summer menu features mulhwe, a seafood dish served in an icy kimchi broth; naengmyeon, cold beef noodles; and samgyetang, a chicken dish flavored with ginseng.

The sustainable smart farm experience

To implement that seasonality in Lee’s menu, Na Oh utilizes HMGICS’s two-story automated smart farm that employs 568 growing towers to produce nine crops including ice plant, Swiss chard, and romaine lettuce. The result is a true farm-to-table experience in which lettuce leaves have been harvested on the same day. It also supports 30 by 30 Singapore, the country’s ambitious food security initiative that targets growing 30 percent of its food locally by 2030. Lee has full agency over what grows in the smart farm, but initially selected crops that were vetted in advance. “We didn’t want to open and be figuring out what the cycle is for prototypes and the output of the smart farms,” he says. Early next year, they plan to ramp up their selections with more Korean vegetables and are currently testing strawberries, grapes, and tomatoes. 

Intentional Korean artisan collaborations

Working closely with Korean artisans to commission custom objects like dishware and textiles, Lee says, “has been one of the most rewarding parts” of creating Na Oh, which honors its collaborators to the point of listing them on the menu. In many cases, such as the pots and pans, the restaurant’s artisan collaborators are some of the last remaining practitioners of traditional ironwork. “That’s why it’s important to put their work in modern settings,” Lee says. “It keeps the tradition alive, and it doesn’t become fossilized.”

An evolved philosophy toward casual dining

While Lee’s career has primarily focused on fine dining’s upper echelons, he believes providing a service that simply makes people happy is universal to all good restaurants. At Na Oh, which leans more casual than Benu, the three–Michelin Star concept he also runs, he’s seizing an opportunity to adapt his white-glove approach to a menu that he describes as simple, homey, rustic, and soulful. “Taking dishes that usually don’t get this kind of treatment from a professional kitchen and serving [them] on artisan-crafted wares … is what we’re doing,” he says.

Honoring traditional hanok homes 

Balancing the restaurant’s design with HMGICS came naturally. As soon as Lee saw the plans, he recognized parallels to the layouts of traditional Korean hanok homes, where central courtyards serve as natural space dividers. Here, the Smart Farm separates Na Oh from the factory, and they even placed ceramic urns to age soy sauce outside as one would find in the outer areas of a hanok. “While you don’t typically associate factories with good food or restaurants, we wanted to embrace the environment and make it part of our program,” he says, “Having an opening where you see the different parts is what connects the programs together.”

All images courtesy of Hyundai Motor Group.

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