A Technical Wizard
Corey Lee is one of the most talented chefs in America. He’s a master technician and a creative wunderkind, cooking on a different level than almost anyone else in the country. Dinner at his three Michelin star San Francisco restaurant Benu is an unrivaled experience—a tasting menu comprised of a cuisine unique to Lee, which reveals his Korean heritage, influences from work and travel, and his interpretation of the modern American food experience. Lee just published his first cookbook, Benu, a beautiful tribute to his restaurant presented as a 32-course tasting menu. Below, we talk with Lee about his brand new cookbook, how Benu has evolved and his favorite chefs in San Francisco.
AndrewZimmern.com: Can you pinpoint the moment in your life in which you decided you were going to be a chef?
Corey Lee: I had been working in the dining room at Blue Ribbon in New York for a few months and was very intrigued by the kitchen. The owners let me come in early and work with the chefs. I knew pretty much right away.
AZ.com: You famously worked for Thomas Keller for a decade. How did that experience inform what you wanted to create in your own restaurant?
CL: Thomas is able to recognize his team as individuals and cares to discover their strengths. Then he’s able to utilize that to benefit the entire restaurant. He’s also someone who constantly reinvests in his restaurants, and that’s why they continue to evolve and stay relevant. I learned a lot about growth, both for the restaurant and staff.
AZ.com: Describe the process of dialing the restaurant in from the experience of the first year, versus the experience the diner has now when they visit Benu? Was it trickier being both chef and restaurateur?
CL: As a restaurant gets older and more established, the public gains a better understanding of its identity. In the beginning, diners come with all types of expectations that are so hard to meet because they’re so varied. And because we’re lucky to now have an audience that’s more aware of what we’re doing, our approach to how we cook and run the restaurant is more focused and confident.
AZ.com: What does it take to succeed in your kitchen?
CL: To be honest, I think it’s a tough kitchen and certainly not for everyone. It takes an enormous amount of self motivation, stamina, and determination. But the tools to succeed are not just tied to physical demands; it’s a thinking person’s kitchen. We expect and demand cooks to think like chefs so they’re challenged on many different levels. And hopefully this kind of training better equips them to run restaurants of their own one day.
AZ.com: What did you learn while going through the whole cookbook process?
CL: I learned why we do certain things, why certain dishes represent us well, how we learn from failure and what contributes to our success. But ultimately it distilled all the various things in our restaurant and helped me understand what is really important.
AZ.com: Each recipe has a detailed backstory. Why did you feel it was important to convey the meaning behind the dishes you create at the restaurant?
CL: I didn’t start the writing process with that intention. But I think if you’re documenting something, whether it’s a recipe or an image, it’s nice to be able to explain why. Through the writing process, it naturally became a meditation on the menu and our reasoning behind it.
AZ.com: What do you hope chefs take away from the book? What about the home cook?
CL: I wanted to document the result of our team’s daily, hard work. While it’s not intended to be cooked from, I hope it inspires the creativity of other chefs and encourages diners to try new dishes and ingredients.
AZ.com: You’ve said that “food is identity. It’s the most revealing thing about you.” What does your food and the food in this cookbook reveal about you?
CL: First and foremost, food reveals where we are and the time in which we’re cooking. This is a restaurant that could only exist in the San Francisco of our current age. Personally, it reveals my background, influences, places that I’ve worked and traveled. It also shows how my bicultural background helped me understand different parts of my self—parts of me that are more American or Asian or Korean.
AZ.com: Name three chefs that are really impressing you right now.
CL: I’m going to stay in San Francisco for his question. There’s a lot going on right now and a large concentration of talent.
Belinda Leong: In just a couple of years, her bakery has become a must-visit in San Francisco and her kouign amann the iconic pastry.
Daniel Patterson: I believe he has 3 new concepts this year alone. He seems to always be evolving and have an inexhaustible ability to conceive new ideas.
James Syhabout: He’s recently opened another Hawker Fare, this time here in San Francisco. It’s always exciting when chefs known for their thoughtful, cerebral cooking do a stripped-down, casual concept, especially when it’s something that’s interesting and truly meaningful to them.
AZ.com: What’s your favorite after hours spot in San Francisco?
CL: At the risk of sounding so promotional, I would have to say Monsieur Benjamin. A big driver in opening that spot was to have a late night place for us to go to, which is a bit of a rarity in San Francisco. For those of us who work long and late hours, having a restaurant to go to after work that’s really cooking and serving tasty, wholesome food with hospitable service contributes hugely to our quality of life.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
CL: Not much, I think just champagne. I rarely cook at home.
RECIPE: Corey Lee’s Chocolate with Candied Seeds.
About Corey Lee
Korean-born, American-raised Corey Lee (b. 1977) is the head chef of Benu, one of America’s most celebrated restaurants, and one of only a handful to receive three Michelin stars. Lee has worked at some of the most acclaimed restau- rants in England, France and the US, including Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.
Photography by Eric Wolfinger.