F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Benu (San Francisco)
Experience: The French Laundry (Yountville, CA); Per Se, Daniel, Lespinasse, Cena, Blue Ribbon (New York City); Guy Savoy, Alain Senderens (Paris); Pied à Terre, Savoy Grill (London)
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
Baked ziti. I made it for Thanksgiving. We were a traditional Korean family trying to celebrate an American holiday, and didn’t fully understand the appropriate dishes for the occasion.
What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Braised, slow-cooked meats like short ribs, brisket or cheeks. There’s a larger window to get it right than something quick like sautéing a piece of fish.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned?
Thomas Keller. He taught me that cooking is a complex undertaking, but if you want to do it well, you have to possess the simple desire to make people happy.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Great Chefs of France, by Anthony Blake.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Being sensitive, physically and emotionally.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Bread. With savory cooking or pastry, there can be too much emphasis on creativity, innovation or the aesthetics of dish. Before something is understood or explored, it’s on to the next thing. I have tremendous respect for craftsmen who dedicate themselves to doing a few things correctly, again and again, perfecting their craft over time. Bakers are these kind of people. Sometimes I wish I could just pick a few things to devote my time to.
What is your current food obsession?
Dried seafood: oysters, abalone, sea cucumber, anchovy, scallop, shrimp.
What three restaurants are you dying to go to in the next year, and why?
1. Din Tai Fung in Taipei, Taiwan. I’ve been to six of its locations in five countries, but never to the original.
2. Noma, because few restaurants can spark a shift in the way people cook and look at food, and Noma has done that in a very honest, intelligent and almost obvious way.
3. The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington. I’ve heard great things about the chef and restaurant. I’m projecting all kinds of fantasies on the experience—I think you have to take a wooden raft to get to the island and then ride bareback up to the restaurant.
Best-bang-for-the-buck food trip: Where would you go and why?
Tokyo. They have plenty of blowout restaurant options, but you can eat so well at any level.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
A beautiful custom knife from Aritsugu in Kyoto, Japan.
If you could invent a restaurant for an imaginary project, what would it be?
A dive where you can order wild abalone right on the coast. You order, the diver jumps in and gets one, then the chef does a raw, cooked and soup course from it while you’re watching the sunset over the Pacific. This is illegal, by the way.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take Thomas Keller to Pro GanJang GeJang in Seoul, a Korean crab restaurant with fermented raw crabs, fried rice and stew.
If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
Korean eel and beef jerky, to roast over a fire.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
David Chang’s miso and tamari.
Name a dish that defines who you are.
Faux shark’s fin soup with crab and black truffle custard.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
Steamed and marinated chicken, with lots of ginger.
What is the best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
Galil peeled chestnuts. They’re organic, unsweetened and perfectly peeled. It makes cooking with chestnuts at home easy.
Do you have any food superstitions, or pre- or post-shift rituals?
I live across the street from the restaurant. I like to go home before service, take my apron off for a few minutes, brush my teeth and wash my face.
Won Best New Chef at: Benu, San Francisco.
Born: 1977; Seoul, South Korea. Raised: New York City and the NY/NJ/CT area.
How he got into cooking: “I was waiting tables at Blue Ribbon Sushi in Manhattan, which had just opened in 1995. The kitchen captivated me—watching the chefs work, seeing how intense and challenging it was. I asked the Bromberg brothers [the restaurant’s owners] if I could work in the kitchen at their other restaurant, Blue Ribbon. They’re such nice guys; they said sure. My first job was chopping parsley. And Blue Ribbon does big numbers, so that meant chopping a case of parsley.”
Best city for a young cook: London. “I interned at La Tante Claire with Pierre Kaufman and the Oak Room with Marco Pierre White. I also did several one-day stages. It was a great city to be cooking in when you’re young, at least in the late ’90s.”
Biggest influences: Thomas Keller. “I worked with him for nine years. I spent almost my entire twenties at the French Laundry. And Christian Delouvrier [then chef at New York City’s Lespinasse].”
Memorable cooking experience: The first time he cooked for his parents. “It was only last year. I’ve been cooking for so long, but it’s the first time they ever came to a restaurant where I was working. They never wanted their son to be in the back slaving away while they were in the front enjoying a meal. I served my mother porridge with black truffles; it came in a cloche that she’d painted for the restaurant. And I snuck my dad two fingers of whiskey—he’s a Scotch drinker, but we don’t have a liquor license.”
Pet peeve: Machines breaking. “We have two of almost every machine at Benu; you need a backup.”
Ingredient obsession: Tofu. “We make tofu with all different kinds of flavors, using soy milk as a base. The mustard tofu is really interesting. But classic ones, like sesame and sweet miso—those are great, too.”
Childhood cooking story: “My grandmother would visit from Korea and make acorn flan. She’d pick acorns in parks that had oak trees, she’d shell them, clean them, rinse them, dry them, grind them. She’d turn that powder into a jelly. As a Korean kid, it’s tough when you’re trying to assimilate into American culture and your grandmother is out picking acorns in the park. But it’s the first time I saw someone take something from the wild and process it. Wherever you went—the kitchen, the laundry room—there was acorn in some form. We’ve had acorn on the menu at Benu since we opened.”
Favorite kitchen tool: Spoon. “I use a spoon for everything: plating, roasting, basting. A lot of cooks use the same spoon for years. I’ve bought some in antique shops when I’m traveling. It drives me crazy when someone uses them.”
Memorable meal: L’Arpège, Paris. “I had lunch there by myself when I was 19. It was intimidating. But they made me feel so welcome, even though I was young and not rich and not speaking French properly. That’s what great restaurants are about. That almost trumps any kind of creativity.”
Favorite food city: “It’s changed over the years. Ten years ago, I would have said Paris. Five years ago, I would have said Tokyo. Right now, I’d say Hong Kong. It has an amazing diversity of food, in terms of different kinds of cooking, fine dining, casual, street food—at such a high level, in so many different places. If you ask five people what’s the best restaurant for roast duck, you’ll get five different answers. That’s the mark of a really great dining city.”
Cheap eat: Cantonese style noodles with wontons, in broth. “I like broth with all kinds of different noodles. Egg noodles, rice noodles; I especially like thin, chewy noodles. And I like congee, too. A bowl of congee or noodles is what I go to.”
After-hours hangout: Bar Agricole. “They have great cocktails, and I love the design of the place. And they have an outdoor seating area, which is rare for San Francisco.”
Fantasy restaurant: “I’d love to do a Korean barbecue restaurant with grills at the table. I’d do beef sliced to order. Either that or a very, very casual and classic French bistro.”
Favorite thing about San Francisco: “Right now, it’s being able to watch Yuan Yuan Tan at the San Francisco Ballet.”
Food trend he most dislikes: “These days, every chef at every level feels like they need to tell a story with their food. You know what? Sometimes food doesn’t need a story. Sometimes those stories aren’t that interesting—it becomes very contrived.”
Favorite cookbook: The Great Chefs of France by Anthony Blake and Quentin Crewe. “It came out in the late ’70s. It’s about the lifestyle of three-starred chefs in France, outside of Paris. It made me appreciate how hard these chefs work, how much commitment their career requires.”
Favorite website: The USDA site, usda.gov. “I think it’s an amazing resource that every cook should bookmark. It provides a nutritional breakdown for almost every ingredient. An apple: You can find out the amount of water, of sugar, of fiber.”
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.