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A meal at Benu and a conversation with Chef Corey Lee

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By Andy Isaacson
Andy Isaacson, a freelance writer and photographer, lives in Berkeley, California. He writes about the intersections of travel, food, science, culture and politics for various publications, including The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, Wired and Mother Jones. An article he wrote on the social history and marketing of tea in the United States, for Utne magazine, was a finalist for an IACP Bert Greene award for Food Journalism. View his article and photography work at: http://www.worldwebeyes.com

Chef Corey Lee: Benu, in San Francisco
At Benu, James Beard Award-winning chef Corey Lee’s first solo restaurant, which opened last August in San Francisco, each intricately prepared dish is so exacting, so considered, and so nuanced in flavor that to talk while eating— “mmm”, “woah” and other involuntary expressions of sensual pleasure aside—would be far too distracting. Fully appreciating the subtleties of each dish requires a certain meditative state, which is encouraged even before you pick up a fork: the modernist, cement courtyard outside, planted with symmetrical Japanese maples, calls to mind a Zen temple garden; the minimalistic, neutral-toned dining room—grey carpeting, grey padded chairs, bare grey-colored walls—achieves the serenity of a day spa.

My treatment: first, some crisp, delicate, toasted buckwheat and nori wafers, served in a specially designed slotted box, so each stands upright. A canapé —quail egg, light citrus juice, star anise—comes with a thin bubble of ginger juice (the membrane is acquired through a trick of molecular gastronomy) that explodes as a refreshing tingle inside the mouth. “It kind of wakes you up a little bit,” Lee later told me. “It sets the tone, and is a playful thing for your first bite.” The rest of the meal unfolded with similar gusto, dish after dish exhibiting intriguing texture and complex flavor—thin eel wrapped in flaky pastry, dipped in lime-salted crème fraiche; sea urchin with creamy sunchokes, prepared like panna cotta, and topped with vibrant green apple ice. Some creations are reinterpretations of Asian classics: in Lee’s “duck with eight treasures” ($28), the meat is rolled around foie gras, duck confit, gizzards, black truffle puree, pistachios and goji berries and then wrapped in crispy skin. The roll is halved, presented like two maki pieces, and sprinkled with gold leaf flakes (the eighth treasure). Knowledgeable servers work efficiently between courses, setting clean utensils on a polished wood orb. Each dish is served in customized porcelain plate ware. Delicious house-made chocolates–white chocolate and green tea, Vietnamese coffee and sweetened condensed milk—arrive for dessert in a wood jewel box. The bowl housing orange curd and pistachio ice cream, which is topped with Tasmanian peppercorn foam, is shaped in a way that hides warm vanilla tapioca as a surprise for the spoon to uncover.

Later, I had a chance to speak with Chef Lee about his cuisine and influences.

What’s behind the cooking at Benu?
It’s very autobiographical. I’m an Asian-American; I was born in Korea, for the first 12 years of my life I ate mostly Korean food. I grew up in the U.S. and that’s a big part of who I am. My closest interaction with Korean culture was through the food—the food that my mom made, or going to the market with her, smelling those aromas, having those flavors. And for the past 10-15 years I’ve been working in French-based kitchens. [For the last eight years, Lee was chef at the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa Valley.] Our menu reflects all those thing; it reflects an Asian aesthetic and Asian base in terms of ingredients and products, and the foundation for the cooking is French. But ultimately we’re an American restaurant; our portioning is by American standards our sourcing of ingredients locally is American.

What are the Korean influences?
The influence is in the ingredients themselves, not necessarily how they are prepared. The base of the sauce in our “Chicken Cecilia” dish is gochujang, a fermented pepper paste, one of the foundations of Korean cooking. But the way it’s prepared is almost classically a French sauce: we make a veal stock, and then a chicken jus. We have a tofu [preparation, served with salmon roe and tiny radish pieces], which is certainly a staple is any Asian cuisine. And matsutake [served as an appetizer with Dungeness crab and foie gras custard, ginko nut and green yuzu zest], is of course one of the most prized mushrooms in Korea.  Our beef [rib cap] is also very Korean; there’s grated Asian pear, which is something you’d find in Korean beef braises, and the combination of pine nuts paired with the beef is a very classical in Korean cooking. [The dish is served with pine needle honey sauce—based on Korean solipcha—with needles harvested in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.]

Every single porcelain piece in the restaurant is made by a Korean manufacturer called KwanJuYo, who I collaborated with for about a year to design them. It’s a company that’s very committed to preserving Korean culture through pottery. Korea has a long tradition of porcelain, ceramic and pottery that was lost for about 150 years during the Japanese occupation—all the fine ceramic work was brought to Japan. This company started in the 1960s by rounding up all the potters still practicing this tradition. They hand paint every piece. I’ve always thought of that as something synonymous with Korean culture.

How do you suggest one should approach eating your food? It does require paying attention.

The tasting menu [15 courses, $160] is about having an experience. It is a sum of its parts. Each course plays a note in a larger piece, if you will. Taking that analogy further, each course is key in the whole piece working.

If you want to enjoy the food you’re being served purely on a sensual level – the taste is good, the texture’s good, it smells good, fine! I certainly hope we satisfy those needs and criteria. But if you want to dig a level deeper, then I hope we offer that too. I think when food becomes too cerebral and too conceptual you forget about the basic pleasure of eating.


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