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Corey Lee on Benu, Thomas Keller, and the Indefinable

A year and a half ago, after having spent nearly a decade working at The French Laundry under Thomas Keller, Corey Lee opened Benu in San Francisco. In that time, his restaurant on Hawthorne Street has earned two Michelin stars, borderline giddy raves from local and national publications, and bold shout-outs from peers like Momofuku's David Chang, who concluded after his meal, "Benu in sf best restaurant in America? If not now then damn soon." Here, in part one of the interview, we discuss his experiences leading up to opening his own restaurant, his approach to fine dining, and the pitfalls of discussing and defining food styles.

What are you doing right now?
I'm actually driving. I just finished dim sum with my sister and am on my way home.

Let's start by talking about the places you worked at before The French Laundry, which seems like the longest and most important of your experiences prior to opening Benu.
Right before French Laundry, I worked for Daniel Boulud. That was a short time, because before I even started working there, I had already accepted the job at The French Laundry. So I just fell in for a few months before I went out to California. And right before then, I was in New York. I traveled in France and got a job offer from a restaurant there, and they offered to sponsor me and help get a visa. But after two months of that difficult process, it didn't work out, so I started to pursue other things in the States.

What was the restaurant in France, and what were some of the ones in New York?
It was La Grande Cascade, a restaurant by Jean-Louis Nomicos in the Bois de Boulogne.

He's at Les Tablettes now, I think.
Yeah, he left about four years ago.

In New York I was at Lespinasse in the St. Regis for two years. I also spent time at Cena, the restaurant from the Canadian chef Normand Laprise. That never really worked out, since I only stayed there for a year. My first experiences as a cook, though, were at Blue Ribbon in SoHo, and then two years in Europe working in England.

From all of those experiences, which stand out?
I went to a few places in England after I moved there in 1997. The most influential for me was Pied à Terre, a small restaurant with Tom Aikens as chef. He was one of the youngest chefs and brightest talents coming out of England back then. England, and especially London, was a very exciting place at the time. This was when Marcus Wareing was still working for Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White still had three restaurants in England. London was going through its great restaurant renaissance.

Being able to stage around and see these places was my first introduction to the world of fine dining and what that kitchen culture is like. Before that, I really had no idea. There you work long hours, and the work environment is probably the most intense and aggressive of any I've experienced. If I had had experience before starting there, I may not have lasted that long, but I had no reference point. I accepted it for what it was and adapted, because I had nothing to compare it to. Being able to stage at places like the Oak Room or La Tante Claire was an eye-opening experience — these are iconic restaurants.

After that, the experience that was very influential besides The French Laundry was Lespinasse.

Did you work under Gray Kunz?
When I was there, Kunz was already on his way out. My time was spent with Christian Delouvrier.

What was so special about it?
I really respected him and appreciated his time. He was the first one to give me opportunities to work some real positions in a four-star kitchen. If you look at the restaurants of that caliber at that time in New York, most of the senior positions there were manned by Europeans. Christian gave Americans a real opportunity to have those jobs. I think that had something to do with the fact that his wife was American and his kids were American. It was a kitchen that in many ways had an American sensibility, even though we were making very French food. It was very influential in my appreciation of what French cuisine or any kind of cuisine means when it takes place in the US.

Now, to the Laundry. You worked for Keller for about nine years, which, unless I have the wrong idea, sounds like a really long time.
Yeah, that's a pretty long time. Before that, the longest job I had was two years at Lespinasse. I didn't plan to spend that long there, and I think that's a testament to the kind of restaurant Thomas runs — his ability to retain staff, constantly challenge them, and offer opportunities. But you're right, in such a transient industry, it's a very long time.

How did the job come about and what did you learn from the experience?
I read this article that Florence Fabricant wrote about plans for Per Se in the Time Warner Building and all the things that were happening there and I contacted Thomas Keller about it. He told me to come out.

When I started there, I had six years of cooking under my belt, so I felt I could take on some more responsibility. Thomas is someone who can recognize people's strengths and utilize them in a way that benefits his restaurant as a whole. That was the first time I worked for a chef that recognized chefs as individuals and cared to see what they were good at. I started out as a chef de partie, then he offered me an opportunity as a sous chef, then as executive sous chef, chef de cuisine, and so forth. He also taught me about the financial aspects of running a restaurant — the big picture. I realized pretty much right away that the success of that restaurant wasn't just about Thomas but about his ability to utilize dozens of people to make it great.

You've mentioned in other interviews that as time went on, you sort of had to edit yourself — you noticed that certain things you would come up with while working for Keller wouldn't work for his restaurant. At what point did you realize it was time to go? What did you want?
Let's start from the point that I realized I wanted to do something on my own. Most chefs have that ambition at some point, and it was something I always had at the back of my mind. But I had no idea what it meant. I decided to leave in 2009, which was a terrible time. The economic climate was at the trough. In some ways, in hindsight, it was my ignorance that gave me the confidence to do it. I think you need to be a little bit blind. It kind of happened in a way that I never anticipated.

How so?
I thought I would be opening in New York. You remember Honmura An?

Yeah, on Mercer.
I looked at that space the day Lehman Brothers went under. I'm a 31 year-old chef trying to open a fine dining restaurant, and that's the timing I have. Needless to say, that deal never worked out, so I took a step back and thought about what I wanted to do and what I needed to get there. The more I thought about it, opening up in the Bay Area, in California, in an area I was familiar with and had developed relationships with over the previous nine years made sense. It was silly to leave all that. So I found some good partners, and from there we started putting together the business. Once it started, it happened very quickly.

The trick was finding the space. It's counterintuitive: in a bad economy, you think it's easy to find a space, but it's actually harder. But at the same time, the timing was very good, since once we found something, the price was better than I think it would have been at any other moment.

Did you have a clear vision for what you wanted?
In some ways, yes.

The food we're doing now is a little more evolved and refined than I had planned. I had always wanted a restaurant that was a slight departure from traditional fine dining, and in many ways, I thought that would translate to the food just naturally. Given my background and the backgrounds of the guys in the kitchen, when it came to doing something that was really personal, it became more refined. And I didn't want to do anything that wasn't personal, natural, and true to our background. It's what we find gratifying as cooks.

What constitutes a "departure from traditional fine dining" to you?
A fine dining restaurant ten years ago — and I'm kind of just throwing that number out there — was about offering people an opportunity to engage a certain kind of lifestyle. But now I think people go for an experience that is unique to that restaurant. I wanted a restaurant that could offer that in every sense: the food, the design, the feeling, the service, the materials that are used, the tableware. For some chefs it's about location and region, for others it's about innovation and technique, for others it's about doing something very classical. But what I gravitate towards and find rewarding is touching on certain cultural reference points. I think that comes from being Asian-American and having moved here at an age when I was old enough to recognize that I was a foreigner. My understanding of that experience translates to the food that we do.

That brings us to the question of your cooking style. People often use the terms "progressive" or "modernist" to describe your food, but that doesn't give a particularly clear idea of what it actually is. How do you see it?
You probably struggle with this all the time. These days there are all these words to describe food and restaurants and styles. But it's not that helpful, is it?

I'd say it's effective in that it gives you a sense, but it's ultimately difficult to really know unless you try it or study it.
Right. Exactly. When people ask me, "What kind of food do you serve at your restaurant?" I'll sometimes ask them, "Well, what's your favorite restaurant? What kind of food is that?" They'll maybe say something like Northern California or French-American, but what does that really mean? They can't even define it themselves. The answers to these questions are different for everyone. It's so hard to define and have a conversation about food styles, since there is no general accepted definition for these terms.

But, you know, the term "modernist" or "progressive" works, since those terms basically imply the use of modern ingredients or techniques, which we try to do. We try to incorporate any kind of knowledge that we have, whether it's of ingredients or techniques to improve our existing technique or do something new. That's a very general way of describing what modern cooking is about for me: making your dishes' decisions based on things we know now that we didn't know a few years ago, whether it's a better way to make a sauce, a gel, an emulsion. And the ingredients and the equipment that go along with making those things happen is what modern cooking is about.

The next step is figuring out what you are trying to express and communicate to your guests with these tools.

Tomorrow, Lee talks about technological advances in his kitchen, whether cooking is art, and the goals he's recently set for himself.

· All Corey Lee Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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22 Hawthorne Street San Francisco, CA 94105