When David Chang says you’re ‘pound for pound one of the best chefs on this earth’, you must be doing something right and these are the exact words Chang used to describe the Korean born chef Corey Lee who is the head chef at the three Michelin starred Benu restaurant in San Francisco.
Benu is loved by critics and chefs alike and the chef, who fuses Asian influence and ingredients with French technique and an all round American flare and feel, has built a strong reputation across the industry. A chef who has been influenced by East and West throughout his life, Lee fuses his own identity into dishes that delight and surprise.
Check out this exclusive video as Lee describes his creative process in the kitchen:
His first book, published by Phaidon, has just been released and offers a real insight in the chef and a restaurant that many claim is the future of American gastronomy. The book takes readers on an exciting journey through 32-courses from the restaurant’s menus with each dish acting as the anchor for a story involving Lee’s life, inspirations and food memories. It’s an interesting way of narrating a book and one that perfectly marries food with true stories, wonderful imagery and recipes.
Lee takes readers on a journey through important ingredients employed at Benu, such as Kimchi and Ginseng, the work of dedicated food producers from South Korea to Hong Kong and the interesting motivations that drive him everyday. Packed with over 150 beautifully shot images, no detail has been spared, even the cover has been designed to highlight the Shanghai dumpling, xiao long bao.
We caught up with the chef for an exclusive chat about the book and to find out more about the style of cooking that’s rocketed him to success. You can also get more info about the book on Phaidon.
How would you describe your cuisine?
Our cuisine reflects where we are both geographically and temporally. That applies not only to our locality and season, but also the influences of the area and spirit of the time.
What sparked your passion for cooking?
Observing the artisanship of the chefs at my first job in a Japanese restaurant. There was an intense focus and physical ability balanced with a very soft, creative, artistic side. I was in the front of house, but first encountered that combination while watching them work.
How has producing your first major book impacted Benu?
Internally, I think it helped us understand the type of restaurant we are and what’s really important to us. We’ve come to understand what has contributed to our success and failures; In that way, writing the book was a huge learning experience. It can also help us reach an audience outside of our diners, which is always a challenge for restaurants.
Can you tell us about some of the more interesting ingredients, techniques, styles you present in the book?
While our cooking is rooted in traditional techniques, we’re always looking to evolve and refine them to deliver greater flavor or consistency. And many of the techniques in the book are based on classical preparations. Although, I think if you delve into the recipes themselves, they reveal techniques and processes that are unique to our restaurant. For our sea cucumbers, we stuff them with a light mousse that accentuates their gelatinous texture. Then we permeate the sea cucumber's flesh with an intense sauce using vacuum cooking. While the principles of hydrating this dried product and braising them are the same as traditional Chinese cooking methods, we use modern cooking techniques and preparations not typically associated with Asian cuisine to great effect.
What’s your biggest motivation in the kitchen?
Staying inspired. And we look for inspiration in new ingredients we work with, new techniques we develop, staff we hire, guests we cook for, and new designs we’re working on. Inspiration is an active process, something you have to actively pursue.
What aspirations to you have for the future of your career?
Dreams you would still like to achieve, projects you always think about? For most of my career, my aspiration has been to open a restaurant like Benu- one where we have the opportunity to be creative, work with the best ingredients, attract talented staff from around the world, and have diners who are interested in what we’re doing. So my new aspirations are often linked to making Benu evolve and become more sustainable. And that goal often leads me to new projects.