An American Restaurant:
Inside Benu with Chef Corey Lee
By Marc Palatucci
Down a side street in San Francisco’s SoMa district stands an unassuming brick facade. Fringed with ivy, the building could easily be mistaken for just another office or studio, if not for a set of wide, arched windows looking onto an entirely different sort of workspace: in double-breasted chef’s whites and neat black aprons, a team of professionals bustles about their kitchen, methodically and meticulously preparing the nightly service for Benu, one of the city’s most esteemed dining destinations and the focus of an extraordinary new book from Phaidon.
Presiding over the energized yet focused kitchen is the book’s author, Benu owner and chef Corey Lee. A Korean-American, Lee taps the rich history of Asian cooking as inspiration for his menu, but ultimately seeks to develop the tastes and techniques of the past to discover a uniquely contemporary take on traditional cuisine. “The restaurant is rooted in a desire to explore new things, and hopefully create interesting and delicious new flavors,” he explains. “That’s why cooking evolves—food’s more delicious now than it was two-hundred years ago, I’d like to think. As much as cooking is rooted in tradition, so much about that tradition is the influence of each generation that shepherds it into the next.”
That intrepid spirit is manifest in the very first item on Benu’s fixed multi-course menu—a powerfully pungent preserved quail egg that immediately challenges the diner’s sensibilities. “It’s not whether you know it or have had it before, or even if you understand the significance of the dish. I’m just concerned with someone who wants to try it,” says Lee. “Our intent is to fill you with experiences that you can’t have anywhere else, and that dish definitely puts your willingness to try something you’ve never had to the test right away.” This beguiling delicacy is just one of the many exquisite dishes explained and explored in the pages of the restaurant’s book, alongside spectacular photographs of the ingredients and locales that inspire the diverse fare.
When someone asks me what kind of restaurant Benu is, my first answer is “It’s an American restaurant.” It’s open to the influence of all different kinds of cultures.Corey Lee
Lee’s intention is not for each featured meal to be precisely recreated per se, but more importantly for readers to learn about the dishes, stimulating their curiosity and expanding their awareness of the possibilities of inventive culinary endeavors. “I can’t really imagine anyone cooking from the book exactly the way the recipes are written,” admits Lee. “But I hope that for the person at home, or the ambitious amateur cook, they’ll see some of these ingredients and they’ll go to a store, try something, and see if they can incorporate it into their cooking at home, maybe not exactly the way we do it, but in some way. Hopefully that leads to more new experiences.”
The entire team at Benu is committed to providing a superlative dining experience at the highest level, and has garnered countless accolades in the process, including an elusive three-star rating from the premier arbiter of taste in the restaurant world, the Michelin Guide. But as chef Lee laments, his audience is limited to the fifty-five visitors who fill the dining room each night. With the release of his book, however, he has found a new way to share his life’s passion with the public. “For me, this is an opportunity to reach a greater audience, but stay true to who I am as a chef, and who we are as a restaurant.”
Lee’s objective with the book is essentially one of increased accessibility, offering more and more people a fascinating glimpse into the rarefied world of innovative cuisine at its finest. “It relates to a bigger technology-based movement—that art, design, just a beautiful aesthetic, are all more relevant and accessible in people’s lives than ever before,” he says. “It’s all about having access to something beautiful, and the opportunity to make something beautiful yourself. Food is part of that movement.”
He is always searching, pushing himself forward even as he embraces the past. Benu, both the restaurant and the cookbook, are contemporary projects that reflect Corey’s respect for all that came before.Thomas Keller
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