Celebrity chef Im Ji-ho devoted much of his life to wandering through Korea in search of interesting culinary and medicinal ingredients—and for more than a decade director Park Hye-ryeong has wandered along with him.
The documentary director first met the subject of her moving film, The Wandering Chef, around 2006 when he was featured in the KBS TV documentary program that she worked on, The Human Theater.
“I was really impressed by his knowledge and also the stories he had behind food,” said Park while visiting New York City for a showing of her film at the Margaret Mead Film Festival. “I started to document his life personally about ten years ago because I wanted to document a side of him that wasn’t expected. There’s a certain image that the media expects, but I wanted to go beyond that to show him in his natural setting.”
Documenting the chef meant regular hikes through Korea’s mountains, streams and meadows in all seasons, as he sought ingredients—from milkweed to moss—that others might ignore, for their medicinal and nutritional value.
“I distinctly felt that he was different from other chefs that I’d met in that he would use ingredients that people no longer used, things people threw away, seemingly useless ingredients, and then transform them into very rich food creations,” said Park. “I was very curious as to what the philosophy behind his creations was and also what sort of human story developed that philosophy.”
As Chef Im wandered, he not only shared the medicinal and nutritional uses of his findings but emotional stories about his past.
“His father was actually a doctor of Korean medicine,” said Park. “He spent his early years foraging in the mountains looking for herbs with his father, so some of that really came from an early training.”
Successful foraging benefits from training, but knowing how to prepare and present foraged ingredients requires a unique gift. In his famous restaurant Sandang (Mountain Village), the chef has crafted inventive and delicious meals uniquely designed to benefit his diners.
“He did not go through the standard forms of training when it comes to becoming a chef,” said Park. “It was usually him just trying things out on his own, trying things and almost coming to the brink of death because he consumed things that weren’t supposed to be consumed.”
It’s not just potentially delicious but possibly dangerous ingredients he chooses to assess, but also the potential ailments of person he is cooking for.
“He has a very good eye, because when he’s cooking for someone, he will see a particular ailment this person has,” said Park. “He will make a dish that is completely suited for that person and that requires a lot of creativity.”
Traditional Korean food medicine has long used herbs and common culinary ingredients to achieve health benefits.
“The way he cooks and the ingredients he uses have actually been tradition for centuries in Korean culture, so it’s not something that is completely new or novel,” said Park. “It’s just a way that Koreans have not been in touch with for some time now. His creativity is really utilized in the presentation of the dishes he makes, that’s different than the way it would have been centuries ago.”
From foraged acorns to angelica, Im is sure there’s a use for every ingredient in nature.
“It’s his philosophy that everything can be eaten but it’s also a matter of how to prepare the ingredients in a way that will bring out their healing properties the most,” said Park. “So he really does study and do trial and error to come to conclusions that will be the best for that individual.”
Im began wandering in search of ingredients when he discovered the woman who raised him was not his biological mother, and that his birth mother died in an accident, shortly after leaving him with his father. A few years later his adopted mother also died and this longing for lost maternal love became entwined with his search for the nourishing power of food.
“We were passing by his hometown when he revealed to me that his birth mother had died in a car accident,” said Park. “The only fact that he knew about her was that her last name was Kim and he had searched all over this area to look for his mother’s grave. That was the point where I thought this could be the start of a film. Because it felt that what I was making should not just be about food itself, but about the life of the man behind the food. By understanding his life we can understand more of his food.”
On his wanderings he met an old couple and decided to cook dinner for them. The woman became another mother figure to him and after her death, he mourned and ceremonially honored her, as well as the memories of his other mothers, by creating a feast.
In her career as a director, Park has focused on human connection and bonding through food. For years she has directed documentaries for the KBS program Human Theater and the production company she heads creates the popular food program Korean Dining and Cuisine.
“Communication and bonding through food has been my niche, so to speak,” said Park. “I’ve made a lot of human documentaries. I want to focus on people who are in the margins, people who communicate and bond together through food. When it comes to filmmaking I want to keep on doing that as well.”
Park is currently developing two films. One is focused on a young woman trying to preserve culinary tradition in her family, while the second will document the lives and journeys of three Korean actresses of varying ages.
Meanwhile, The Wandering Chef is making the film festival circuit, having debuted at the HotDocs Film Festival in Toronto. It has already been shown at festivals in Sydney and San Sebastian and airs at festivals in Israel, Poland and Norway. The showing at the Museum of Natural History’s Margaret Mead Festival was co-sponsored by the Korea Society and the Korean Cultural Center New York.
Following Im around for a decade changed Park’s perspective on life and her film’s pensive pace and gorgeous cinematography makes that easy to imagine. Scenes that contemplate the meditative quality of rain and the lush growth of herbs surviving winter’s dormancy create a sense of communion with the natural world. Scenes that capture the quiet heartbreak of an empty house sum up the importance of human connection.
“Seeing him work with ingredients that we would normally think had no value in such a great way really made me rethink my preconceived notions about food, people, and everything in general,” said Park. “I also became a more eco-conscious person. At the beginning of the film, there’s a quote that says ‘If it’s from nature nothing is useless.’ That quote really, really touched me. Because I was able to rethink and restructure my thoughts in a way, where everything is meaningful and nothing is of no value, it became easier to accept everyone and everything for who and what they were.”
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
This story was originally published on forbes.com.