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Chef Corey Lee

The Man Behind Benu

  • Benu
    22 Hawthorne Street, San Francisco, CA 94105 (Map)
    +1 415.685.4860

Four words come to mind with Benu, the new jewel of SFís fine-dining scene: warmth, precision, purpose, and ingenuity. The Benu team exudes knowledge and effortless sophistication. Guests may mistake the ambiance as austere, but the clean, modern lines echo purpose. Sleek curio cabinets, high-backed booths, flatware matched to each course, and lively conversation set the stage. Try and grab the back booth with a plush pillow, the perfect companion to a multi-hour meal.

The $160 fourteen-course tasting menu may cause jaws to drop, but it is well worth the price for one of the most inventive and adventurous dining experiences. Distinct, carefully chosen components and soft Asian accents form the foundation. The highlights? The sake lees sorbet with foie gras, mountain yam and yuzu elicits myriad sensations. The creamy, indulgent sorbet contrasts nicely with the bright, crisp, citrus yuzu foam.

My favorite bite of a ďchoose-your-own-adventureĒ three-dish ensemble is a lightly fried black squid ink chip, an upscale version of shrimp chips found in Asian markets.

Pao means abalone and I have a soft spot in my heart for the abalone grenobloise. Flown in fresh from Kona, the abalone is breaded and pan-fried, then garnished with parsley, capers, and lemon. The Asian delicacy too often overcooked or over-sauced is perfectly executed; a testament to the precision and restraint of Chef Lee.

Lee introduced a new dish that night; a rich and silken foie gras terrine. The dish is complex, audacious and in your face ó love.

No meal is complete without dessert. Pop the soft, thin sphere of white chocolate into your mouth and surprise your senses as the ball bursts, revealing the cool almond milk filling.

Walking into the spotless Benu kitchen, you can easily miss the shorter man in his early thirties flashing a warm, modest smile. Meet Chef Corey Lee, James Beard award recipient and former head chef of a little known three Michelin star restaurant called The French Laundry.

After my incredible dinner I had the chance to interview Lee and find out just who is behind the white coat. Here are a few things I found: Chef Lee has a good head on his shoulders and values strong work ethic. He never really paid attention to blogs before SF. He is appreciative and mindful and loves a good bowl of noodles or a round of golf. Oh, and you are probably going to like him.

SFS How have your Korean roots played into your food and how has that influence evolved over time?
Corey Lee: I was born in Seoul, Korea. My mother and her mother were exceptional cooks, and almost all the food I ate in my early childhood was Korean. My parents still live in Korea so I visit regularly, and with Koreaís proximity to other parts of Asia, I have the opportunity to travel.

That upbringing and those experiences instilled in me an appreciation for and an understanding of eastern Asian cooking, aesthetics, ingredients, flavors, and balance. But itís only now that Iím enjoying exploring those things fully from a professional perspective.

SFS ďAsian fusionĒ is a well-recognized term nowadays in the culinary world. How do you seek to represent the concept of Asian fusion at Benu?

CL: I donít seek to represent that at all, actually. The term ďfusionĒ to me, is a scientific term that implies things coming together by force or heat. There certainly is a significant amount of Asian influence at Benu, but itís not formulaic or calculated. We cook what weíre inspired to; the incorporation happens naturally.

SFS: In defining your training as classical French, what are the biggest strengths you pull on this training as head chef at Benu?

CL: My French cooking background is probably most influential in our kitchen structure and organization. Our recipes are written similarly to French pastry work. Our kitchen stations are more or less departmentalized in a French brigade system. But overall, we are a modern restaurant. To me, that means making judicious decisions about techniques, combinations, and ingredients based on results and efficiency, not national or cultural origin.

SFS: SF vs. Napa: Youíve been in San Francisco now for a few months, what differences are strongly apparent in contrast to the kitchen in Napa?

CL: SF is very different from Napa. Napaís hospitality industry relies heavily on tourists. When people are on vacation, they genuinely want to have a good time. Theyíre apt to dine more leisurely and are relaxed. Urban restaurants have to cater to a much broader audience and meet a myriad of different needs.

SFS: Benu has been open now about six months. What has surprised you since the opening of the restaurant? Was there anything you were taken off-guard by?

CL: The whole blogging culture was something that I was very unfamiliar with before I opened Benu. Sure I knew it existed but I never really read any of it. I have to admit if I read a posting somewhere that speaks negatively about an experience they had, it really affects me. Itís amazing how insensitive people can be when cloaked in anonymity. I think itís unfortunate ó guests used to communicate directly to the restaurant about their complaints so we could do something about it.

SFS: How do you see the menu evolving at Benu?

CL: We have to see. I think itís important to understand our clientele, and who our clientele will be a year from now. We offer two menus: a tasting and an a la carte. But over seventy percent of our diners order the tasting menu.

SFS: I am curious about the poularde cuite en vessie. How often does a guest order this? What was the inspiration behind the dish?

CL: Weíve probably served 40, or so, since we opened. Itís something very classical, and in turn, nostalgic. The first time I prepared this was at Guy Savoy in Paris in 2002. Iíve read about it and had seen it in books but working with it for the first time was magical, and the guests who were having it were probably experiencing the same thing. In this modern age of cooking, where so much importance is placed on innovation and newness, that dish is on the menu is a reminder of the magic that can exist in tradition and history.

SFS: My dinner at Benu was the most inventive and surprising culinary event Iíve experienced in years. How do you keep your creative juices flowing?

CL: Thank you for saying that. Youíre too kind. Iím not sure, but I do know that I think about work and food all the time. The downside is I think that makes me a difficult person to be around.

SFS: When you are not at Benu, where do you like to grab a bite? What other hobbies occupy your time outside of the kitchen?

CL: Mostly very casual places. I like San Tung. The black bean noodles are the closest Iíve had outside of Seoul. Up in Napa, I love eating at Redd. For fine dining, I think the work that Daniel Patterson and David Kinch are doing at Coi and Manressa are very inspiring and important.

As far as hobbies goes, I love to play golf. But Iíve played once since Benu has opened so next time I go out Iíll probably need an extra couple sleeves of balls.