Corey Lee's Korean name means "Wise Man from the East." Now, this ultra-refined, hyper-talented San Francisco chef is making a convincing argument about what Western cooking can encompass. Here, a night in the kitchen at Benu.
Corey Lee, the Korean-born, American-trained chef who, at the age of 36, is already among the most highly regarded cooks in the country, stands at one end of a stainless counter, two rows of menus in front of him. Half of his cooks have, like him, monkishly shaved heads. They are figures, moving rapidly, apprehended through steam and smoke. Silence. Dee dee dee deet, a timer goes off. "Fine fine fine" a cook mutters to herself. Tonight, alongside the current iteration of Benu's 19-course menu, there are 10 additional menus being prepared for repeat diners—including one who is eating there for the 38th time. Then there are the modifications, which the servers whisper to Lee, and he delivers to the brigade of cooks.
"All three no peanuts!" Lee calls, as if through a bullhorn.
"All three no peanuts" the entire staff replies in unison.
"One no raw!"
"One no raw."
"One potage no pork!"
"One potage no pork."
"One potage no brussels!"
"One potage no brussels."
"No roe, P-1!," he says to a server, referring to the diner in position one, the top left of the table.
(An awkward pause.)
"No roe, P-1," the mortified server replies.
"One no gluten!"
"One no gluten."
"One no pectin!"
"One no pectin?"
Someone fumbles a pan. "Clumsy!" Lee says sternly. "Sorry, chef," says the flustered cook. Lee softens just perceptibly.
The past decade has seen the arrival of Korean-inflected cooking in America, with its bold, pungent flavors and its late-night, neon vibe. Lee's ultra-refined cuisine is a different animal, and poses a different challenge. His complex menu makes an argument about what American cooking can encompass: Japanese dried seafood, Korean methods of fermentation, Chinese textures, Modernist inversions, California produce, French technique. "We use products from all over the world—that's not in fashion—but San Francisco is one-third Asian and we reflect that," Lee says. "I don't think our restaurant could exist in Korea, China or Japan, though. The intermingling makes us very American." Eating at Benu in the summer of 2011, chef David Chang of the Momofuku empire posted on Twitter: "Benu in SF best restaurant in America? If not now then damn soon. Corey Lee working w flavors that are on point. Run don't walk."
Most Americans will never have had the fermented Chinese delicacy known as thousand-year egg before. (Traditionally, it was made by packing an egg in ash and clay and burying it till it spoiled.) After an unpleasant close encounter with one several years ago, I swore I never would again. But the first thing on Lee's menu is a thousand-year quail egg, served in a thick, nourishing gingery soup called a potage. What choice did I have? I took a bite. The soup gently couched the acidity of the grayish yolk. It was strangely comforting; my reservations evaporated.
Without kimchi, Lee says, a Korean can't be happy. For the second course, he speed-ferments a super-potent liquefied kimchi in a vacuum bag, thickens it with modified starches and spreads it on a sheet to dehydrate at room temperature. Then he forms a shell that he fills, taco-salad-style, with kimchi, whipped kimchi, pork belly and a raw Beausoleil oyster. It's all meant to be eaten in one smoky, smooth bite.
If Benu is Lee's first novel—autobiographical, avant-garde, pointedly ambitious—his next projects will be flawlessly executed, middlebrow genre fiction. In the early months of 2014, he'll open a laid-back, Americanized French bistro called Monsieur Benjamin in San Francisco's Hayes Valley. "The idea came from realizing that French food is not fully explored in San Francisco in a casual context," he says. Later in the year, he plans to open the Korean barbecue restaurant he's longed for since moving to the city: in-table grills inside, open flame outside, no smoke in your clothes. "I guess it's for somewhat selfish reasons," he says. "I want a proper Korean restaurant to go to—a restaurant that captures the deliciousness, uniqueness and conviviality of Korean dining." He'll serve traditional banchan, the many small side dishes that accompany a Korean meal, making his with Californian produce: Expect fermented ramps. He is approaching both new projects with the same scholarly, precise attention he brings to Benu.
Blue Ribbon Sushi, New York City, mid-'90s.
Lee, 17, is a busser. He asks if he can work for free on days off so he can learn how to cook. Someone says yes. The next thing he does is go to London to work at Pied à Terre and La Tante Claire—places where you toil for 18 hours at a stretch and feel lucky if nobody punches you in the face. Lee's mother asks him, "Now are you going to college?"
Lee's family had come to the States when he was five, eventually settling in New Jersey. His older sister gave him his American name (his Korean name loosely translates to "Wise Man From the East," which didn't play well in Tenafly). "My family used to run through the cheese section of the grocery store," he says—in flight from the unfamiliar dairy smell. At home, they kept two fridges, one for Korean food and one for American. "It informed how I see my American-ness versus my Korean-ness. There is some separation there. Benu's food is about how those two can coexist."
After London, Lee spent time in the kitchens at Daniel and Lespinasse in New York. "You heard about it—there's this kid that's a badass and he's an awesome cook," Chang says. "He's a fighter—a tiny pitbull. Nobody's going to outwork him, and you're not going to outthink him, either."
"His commitment to his career was profound," says Thomas Keller, who hired Lee to work at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City. "It was a rare—that's an understatement—approach from a man so young, that kind of foresight and ambition and willingness to learn." Lee was with Keller for nine years. To his physical endurance and mental wherewithal he added finesse, and the confidence to make his cooking personal.
"Thomas Keller was the first chef to do French interpretations of American food," Lee says. "For him, it was mac and cheese. For me, it might be re-creating flavors from when I was younger, finding a way to refine them. It's realizing that people can find your own experiences interesting."
One morning at Benu, Lee took a seat in the empty dining room and set out a black Moleskine notebook. Jason Berthold, who will be chef de cuisine at Monsieur Benjamin, delivered a big, sloppy French dip alongside a small dish of jus with a floater of Wagyu fat. "I like the idea of a French dip, mainly because of the name," Lee said. "It's the most inauthentic thing you can put on a French menu."
Berthold excused himself and came back with a gravy boat full of chasseur, a one-time staple of French cookery that Lee wanted to serve with quail. The sauce was buttery and soft, packed with button mushrooms, and possessed the vague sweetness of long-cooked meat: the taste equivalent of a brown cashmere sweater with leather elbow patches. Lee approved.
For Lee, conceiving Monsieur Benjamin meant tackling the existential nature of the bistro. Was a bistro a bistro because it had smoked glass mirrors? Because it served steak frites? For research, Lee went to Paris—where he heard a concierge call to an American guest, "Monsieur Benjamin!"—and to Montreal, where the cooking has French roots, English influences and an inimitable Canadian wildness. From the chefs at Joe Beef, he absorbed the idea that a restaurant can have an anchoring effect for locals while still drawing an international clientele.
Monsieur Benjamin will stay open till 1 a.m., serving the kind of food that a chef rigorously trained in the French system, like Lee, might cook for friends on his night off. So maybe it draws from a different chapter of Lee's story, and is a roman à clef after all.
Dana Goodyear is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of the omnivorous new book Anything that Moves.