Dennis Lee

Chef Dennis Lee

F&W Star Chef
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Restaurant: Namu Gaji, San Francisco
What is the recipe you’re most famous for? The pickled beef tongue has become the signature dish at our restaurant, Namu Gaji. It is braised then pickled in a soy-based brine for a week, then grilled to order in nice fat cubes. It’s very minimalist, served with a little side of grilled potato with some bonito butter and a little grilled onion.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?Eight Immortal Flavors, by Johnny Kan. It’s a classic 1960s cookbook of San Francisco’s Chinatown. I love older, antiquarian books, plus this one covers a lot of the basics of my style, Asian cooking in San Francisco.
What is one technique everyone should know? How to cook rice on the stovetop. How you make rice says a lot about a cook. There are actually a lot of variables: Some cooks will automatically rinse the rice three or five times, but how much you wash it depends on the rice. Then the ratio of water to rice doesn’t increase in equal amounts as you increase the portion size. At this point I can just eyeball how much water I need, but it takes practice to figure it out.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?Black garlic. We make our own. Right now we use it on our grilled portobello mushrooms, we also do a black garlic gastrique with Parisian gnocchi. It has that garlic flavor that everybody loves, but without the intensity of raw garlic; it also has a certain earthy sweetness that’s appealing.
Where would you go for the best bang-for-the-buck food trip? Jakarta. I just went; the traditional market was quite interesting, since there’s little refrigeration—everything’s fresh, it just isn’t going to last very long, since it’s about 100 degrees. But there was a huge variety of seafood and fruit. One of our most memorable meals, we sampled Padang cuisine, which reminded me of Korean food because they bring out all these different plates, like the Korean banchan. They fill your table with plates—the waiters carry something like 12 plates at a time on their arms—and the plates cover the table completely. You eat what you want, and what you don’t touch, they don’t charge you for.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Some type of fermentation bacteria. Or jellyfish, since that’s all that’s going to be left in the ocean, unfortunately.
What are the dishes that define who you are?

Kimchi. It might be kind of obvious, but growing up in a Korean household taught me to keep an open mind about fermentation. Restaurants sometimes use only one brine recipe for all their pickles, but there’s so many different kimchi and pickles in Korea, different brines for different vegetables, and every household has its own versions. Even my mother and my grandmother had their own versions, because it’s based on your personal taste.
Dashi. At Namu we keep a pot on the stove and use it almost in place of water in almost anything liquid: vinaigrettes, pickling brines, dumplings, ramen broth, everything. Like an Italian restaurant might use pasta water to enhance a sauce, dashi enhances any dish. We make a classic kelp and bonito dashi, but there’s a whole range. You can tailor it to the dish by adding anchovies or mackerel.

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