Corey Lee on the Craft of Being a Chef

May 7, 2015 5:50 pm Last Updated: March 18, 2018 3:19 pm

David Chang once called Corey Lee “one of the best chefs on Earth.” Corey Lee recently penned “Benu,” named after his three-Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco.

Don’t expect to cook from “Benu,” though. Presented as a 32-course tasting menu, it takes you inside Lee’s mind—his process, discovery, and memories. Beautifully photographed, it is evocative, taking you along on Lee’s personal and culinary journey.

We sat down with Lee last week for a chat before he set off to Hong Kong and South Korea on his international book tour.

Epoch Taste: You spent nearly nine years working under Thomas Keller. How did you know when it was time to strike out on your own?

Corey Lee: I don’t think there was this single moment. I talked about it a bit in the book. There was something I wanted to try and do at The French Laundry, which didn’t work out, and maybe that was the catalyst for the final decision but it’s something I was thinking about or at least sensing for a while.

It definitely had to do with the desire to explore a cuisine that was not appropriate for the restaurant. This is really about Asian food and the food of my upbringing and the flavors that I grew up with and found in Asian cuisine. So it was the desire to explore that and see what the potential for Asian food is in fine dining and cuisine. Over the years there were things I wanted to do or try and I would stop myself from really exploring them. That started to happen more and more. As I got older my curiosity for cooking with Asian products and doing modern food with Asian ingredients grew. So at some point I realized I needed a place of my own to fully explore that.

Epoch Taste: While reading the book, I felt I was on this journey you took when you opened Benu. What was the toughest part about the first year?

Corey Lee: There’s so much actually. I look back on it and if I had known how much of a struggle it would be, it might have discouraged me a little bit. But you go into things kind of blindly and you tackle one hurdle at a time and get through it.

The time we opened was 2010. We prepared for that opening in 2009. And the economy was not what it is today. There were restaurants closing all the time. There were even these sites that tracked how empty restaurants were, for people’s entertainment really. It goes to show you the restaurant climate just five years ago. It’s drastically different now.

As an entrepreneur there’s a certain degree of fear, and then our guests coming in without knowing what to expect was a challenge too. But I look back now and we wouldn’t have known how to meet their expectation other than “This is a work in progress, I think” because to be honest with you we didn’t know ourselves.

I feel when we first opened I had one foot in a more classical Western French style cooking and another foot in some unknown area and it took some time to step out on our own and start to cook in a way that I thought was really cohesive and unique to our restaurant.

It doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes some time to find an identity.

Coming also from a very recognized restaurant there was an expectation that it would be something like that, which for me, that is the opposite of what I wanted to do. The last thing I wanted to do was to have a derivative of anything, really.

Epoch Taste: At the beginning you mentioned people asked you what kind of cuisine you were cooking at Benu.

Corey Lee: Thankfully now after being open for five years that question is probably asked less often. Maybe people don’t understand it or know how to describe it, but they can get a sense of what it is.

It’s tough because there’s not this one word that you can kind of encapsulate the restaurant with. But I’m not sure if you can do that with any restaurant. What kind of food is served here? [at The NoMad]

What do you call that food? Is it French American? The chef is Swiss. We’re in New York. Yesterday we had a hamburger, a hot dog, a foie gras pot pie, carrot tartare, so what kind of food is that?

Epoch Taste: So Benu is really a reflection of you.

Corey Lee: Yeah, as this is a reflection of Daniel [Humm] I think.

If we’re not talking about classic cuisines or even in American regional cuisines like Southern food, then you’re really talking about a style of cooking that’s really unique to a restaurant or a chef.

The important thing is that the descriptions that are out there encourage people to come. And then once guests do come it’s for them to interpret what they’re having and find a way to explain it to themselves or understand it themselves.

I don’t think finding a name for that cuisine is necessarily the responsibility of that restaurant. I think if there is one, it helps. It helps people understand what you’re trying to do. It helps reach audiences, it helps people talk about it.

There are definitely benefits to finding a catchy phrase to describe your cuisine. I just haven’t been able to do that. And I haven’t really felt the need to do that, even though I get asked.

Epoch Taste: In your book you mention how you felt about kimchi at some point and how you felt about your grandmother’s anchovy stock. You didn’t like these flavors. Tell me about the evolution of your palate and how you reconnect with those flavors.

Corey Lee: I was pretty sensitive in my palate and my sense of smell when I was very young. It was something that really annoyed the rest of my family. In terms of my sensitivity to certain flavors and their intensity I’m still pretty sensitive actually. We had a pizza night and I was picking the chilies off because I just can’t handle the spice. As a chef I’ve come to understand how to tame them and how to have them work and harmonize with other flavors within the context of a dish.

Epoch Taste: The book touches on the Japanese aesthetic principle of shibui. What role does shibui play in the presentation of your dishes?

Corey Lee: Shibui was something that my architect talked about a lot [during the opening time] and it stuck with me. I don’t go into a dish and think “It’s our aesthetic goal” but once in a while it helps me when I’m wondering if a dish is complete or if I should add something or if something is powerful enough.

Shibui is all about making sure the things you are offering have real weight to them and are significant and of substance.

If you have an ebonized piece of oak that’s aged, with character, and there’s nothing on it, that’s shibui because the material itself has integrity, has history and value, and it’s beautiful. It’s reflective of nature.

It’s not just sparse or minimalist, it’s making sure that the things you’re using are things of quality and I think that’s more important than being minimalist. It’s about the inherent quality of a material or ingredient has to be there. It’s something beyond what you see.

Epoch Taste: In running a restaurant, you have to juggle being a businessman, an artist, and you’re also thinking of customers. What aspect of restaurant work do you enjoy most?

Corey Lee: You mentioned being an artist and being a businessman. Ultimately we’re not businessmen or artists although we become [these] some of the time. Ultimately we’re artisans, we’re craftsmen.

Artists are different. Artists are like, “I’m going to make something because I’m inspired.” And craftsmen, they have to make something because people need them. We work with our hands to create things that we use to sustain our lives. It’s not at our choosing or so whimsical. It’s something we have to do, like making furniture.

And of course running a business is a big part. As time goes on you realize how important that is, but ultimately we go into this because we’re craftsmen. We have to stay true to that. And everything else comes second. You have to be a good craftsman before you ever have any opportunity to do anything artistic. You have to be a good craftsman before you even think of being a businessman.

It has to start there and stay there if you want to be an active chef. Some chefs change and become businessmen and that’s really what they are, and the chef part becomes second or they’ve delegated that to someone. The kind of chef who’s going to stay in the kitchen, who’s still working with other people and cooking, that’s craft.

“Benu” by Corey Lee, $59.95. Phaidon 2015. phaidon.com