Local spots aren’t striking gold with foreign customers

By Tim Nelson
Updated February 21, 2018
Credit: Fabian Krause / EyeEm/Getty Images

Each Olympiad gives its host a chance to showcase its culture on the world stage. And while Korean foods like kimchi and bibimbap have proliferated around the globe, it would seem that visitors to the Pyeongchang games aren’t taking to the real-deal offerings as much as local restaurateurs expected.

That evidence comes from a recent Pyeongchang culinary dispatch filed by Andrew Keh for The New York Times. In it, Keh describes eating some of the world’s best and freshest red snow crab at the behest of Korean-American celebrity chef David Chang, only to find that the restaurant near Gangneung Olympic Park was all but empty. Despite the fact that the area outside the venues bustled with activity, few stopped in.

“I got everything ready for the Olympics, hired some more part-time help, and then: nothing,” proprietor Choi Jong-bu told the Times.

Indeed, that seems to be a common frustration among Gangwon province restaurateurs. Though athletes have their own sequestered dining areas and spectators are lining up to eat at a specialty McDonald’s shaped like a value meal, local outposts serving up fresh fish and regional favorites like mulmakguksu have gone overlooked and underappreciated.

Part of it may come down to culture shock. While Keh boasted of eating raw fish and octopus so freshly killed that it writhed on his plate, it’s easy to see how foreign visitors might regard such dishes as unappetizing or even cruel. One restaurant serving the kind of barbecued beef that’s fueled Korean food’s diaspora even removed a specialty raw beef dish to avoid offending western palates. “Korean’s are used to seeing and eating it, but foreigners’ stomachs might not be, and they could get sick,” said Pyeongchang Hanwoo Town manager Chang Myeong-soo.

Still, it’s odd that a significant increase in area foot traffic hasn’t led to a more robust appreciation of Korean cuisine among athletes and spectators. Maybe it’s a case of Olympians sticking to their ascetic diets, or spectators longing for something familiar in a foreign land. But when someone like David Chang heaps effusive praise on a local cuisine, it’s probably worth stepping outside one’s comfort zone to give it a shot.