Corey Lee’s masterly trade is food and cooking.
Corey Lee’s masterly trade is food and cooking. He knows it, critics know it, and guests who have savored his celebrated tasting menus all know it far too well. He is, indeed, an artist who formulates his creativity from inspiration. And such inspiration can be elicited from paintings, pieces of music or certain color schemes that appear striking or compelling. Whatever it may be, like a true artist, he agilely interprets his inspiration with the tools of his particular trade – food.
Corey believes that food is a necessity of life – he doesn’t perceive food as art. “It doesn’t always have to be multi-sensory or artistic.” He candidly opens up,
Depending on how you experience that, it can change the way you feel about it. For example: it’s like going to the ballet. Audiences will always perceive the performance as art. You go to a restaurant, the chef serves something artistic, but you have diners who eat just because they’re hungry. There’s no way to distinguish between what’s enjoyed for substance, or for nutrition, and what’s taken in on a more cerebral level. So the lines can be very blurry.
He is, doubtlessly, unarguably correct. As humans, we do not need paintings to survive; they do not need to be a part of our lives. Art is not, as one would say, a necessity. What Corey does with his cuisine, however, is unique in the sense that he is the innovator of delicate and alluring dishes; he creates intended art. “It’s hard to categorize food as art because the audience or the guest doesn’t necessarily see it that way. I think art has to be intended and it has to be appreciated as such from the guest’s perspective. That’s not always the case.”
Corey was born in Seoul, Korea, and grew up in New York. After high school, he started working in restaurants and was attracted to kitchens because of the work ethic. As an Asian-American, he fully understood discipline and hierarchical values, as both are deeply rooted within the Asian culture. The owners of Blue Ribbon, a New York-based restaurant, encouraged him to venture in Europe, so he lived in London and France for two years. He realized the intensity that resided in European kitchens.
It’s the hardest place to be a chef, wages are incredibly low and conditions are hostile.
He also learned why he did so well in that environment. At his young age, he didn’t have anything to compare the experience to, so he accepted it for what it was. After two years, he returned to New York, where he found work to be relatively easy. His time in Europe had provided him with physical stamina and the determination to sustain calmness in stressful settings, both of which have aided him throughout his entire career.
He returned to New York having worked or staged at four three-star Michelin restaurants in Paris and London, and spent the next few years working with Christian Delouvrier, Daniel Boulud, Normand Laprise, Guy Savoy and Alain Senderens. Then, in 2001 he reached out to Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, and so began what would become an 8 year working relationship. After four years, Corey was named Chef de Cuisine at the world famous restaurant in Yountville, California. While there, he refined his craft even further, garnered numerous awards that placed him in a caliber alongside the best in the world.
As modest as he is, Corey doesn’t consider his cooking to be haut cuisine. The second a guest walks into the restaurant, however, he caters the experience to him or her in every way possible. “From what they hear, what they see, what they touch, to the temperature of the room and how they interact with other tables. I see the restaurant as an opportunity to transport the guest with an experience that is multi-sensory and unique.” His ultimate desire is for the experience to be something that takes guests away from whatever else is going on in their lives. “And in that sense, it’s very much like entertainment.” He continues, “I don’t think guests book to eat in certain restaurant months in advance because they’re anticipating being hungry for a night. They’re coming for entertainment. And we have to provide that for them in every way possible.”
Whether it’s entertainment or art or design, he considers haut cuisine to be something that stimulates the senses beyond smell and taste. Thus, each and every one of his dish is visually stunning.
That’s a big part of it, the aesthetics behind it – and it has to be intended. There has to be a certain point of view communicated from the chef. There needs to be a style that’s unique to that chef or to that restaurant, that you’re not going to find it in another restaurant. So there’s something very personal in that.
As tricky as it is, he hits the spot every single time with Benu, the restaurant he opened in the summer of 2010 in San Francisco. From the thousand-year-old quail egg, to the spice cake with blueberry yogurt and oatmeal ice cream.
Benu is a restaurant that truly mirrors the Bay Area. He understands that San Francisco is a very small city that is sophisticated enough to attract world-class arts. As a chef, he is aware that San Francisco offers museums and cultural activities that captivate global travelers in spite of the city’s smaller population.
This is one of the best cities for foodies,
Corey exclaims, “it’s really having its moment right now, for food and for restaurants. It’s not the first, but it’s the next wave.” Benu, with its open-mindedness and innovation, resonates with the culture of the Bay Area. He does his best to be creative, thus his food requires a certain degree of the same open-mindedness to be appreciated.
In this sense, Benu is very much a Bay Area restaurant. “We live in a city where there are 45% Asians. How can you not reflect that in the cuisine that you do? When people say the cooking here is Asian, I find that really interesting. I think that our cooking techniques and the flavors are very Western. But when you read the menu, it appears Asian because Asian ingredients or techniques pop up at you more than the Western ones in the context of a menu. For example, we serve monkfish liver served with local cherries and pistachio. But people see the monkfish and immediately think ‘Japanese.’ So how about the local cherries, tomatoes, and the French bread? I just think it’s the reflection of the time, where we live and the city that we offer it in.”
Some may think this top chef has, well, made it. But he contends, “I still don’t think I’ve made it. Restaurants are tough, I think. Our industry is only as sustainable as the last reservation. It’s not like other businesses where contracts are booked years out. So I never get a sense that I’ve made it. It’s also an industry that’s about being innovative and creative.The second you do a dish that you’re happy with, it’s already passe, and you’re working on the next thing. So you never get a sense of, ‘Okay, I’m done, I’m good.’ And that’s part of the reason why it’s exciting.” The constant challenge clearly keeps it exciting for him.