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Corey Lee on Technology, Cooking, and Art

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In part two of our interview (see part one here), chef Corey Lee of Benu talks about his creative process and the role technology plays in his restaurant, his goals, and the question of whether cooking should be seen as art, craft, or both.

You talk a lot about inspiring emotions and communicating with your guests. Can you explain that further?
For me, it's about offering a cuisine that's more than just satisfying on a sensory level. I think that food should taste good, that food should smell good — that when you go and spend a few hours dining, you are satiated. But it's about going beyond that. If you can somehow evoke something in somebody, that's very special.

Like that "Shark Fin Soup."
Certainly. When you think about Shark Fin Soup, there is no way you don't think about Chinese food. It's a preparation that's been around since the Ming Dynasty. It's something that's always associated with something special, celebratory in a way that few other preparations come close to; it occupies an important place culturally for many people. What we do with it is not try to serve the traditional version of it. I think it's a good example of a dish that incorporates modern technique and modern sensibility. Those kinds of dishes are the ones that I find most gratifying.

Do any other examples come to mind?
We have another dish based on the Bo Ssam. We offer all of the flavors, but the way they are carried is very different — visually and texturally — than the traditional.

What you've just described seems to resonate with what you often encounter at places like Alinea and The French Laundry. But what happens when someone doesn't know what you're going for or doesn't notice the wink?
That's inevitable. It's always going to happen in cooking or film or painting, where you are trying to communicate something that is personal. For me, as a cook, I have to make sure that I satisfy the basic elements of what food is long before I can make an evocative or emotional impact; it has to taste good, be wholesome, use good ingredients. You have to make sure that you can at least satisfy people on that level. But if you can manage to evoke something, it's extra.

You just alluded to disciplines like film and painting. Do you consider what you do art?
That's a tricky question. There's a lot of times when cooking is considered art, but I don't really think of it like that. There are times when we can achieve, through cooking, the same kind of things that art can achieve, but I don't necessarily consider cooking art. I consider it a craft. I can't really speak to other art forms authoritatively, but in some ways they go hand in hand, since you can't achieve artistry without craftsmanship.

It's very difficult, because cooking, and certainly restaurants, are businesses. The perception of that business from the consumer is very different than the way art is valued. When you look at a painting, I don't think anyone would think about things like how much the paint costs — ways to find the value of something. Whereas in restaurants, no matter how wonderful or unique something is, most consumers put into the equation the cost. There might be an amazing preparation of chicken that a chef does, but how much are you willing to pay for that based on your knowledge of how much the materials may cost? So there is a certain value perception that you, as a chef, can't get beyond.

But some would argue that things are improving in that realm and that more and more people are seeing chefs as creators and not just mercenaries.
Absolutely. Personally, I feel that I'm very lucky to be working professionally at this time, where the appreciation for restaurants is at a very high level. The interest is there, so I feel fortunate for that. But I think that the comparison between cooking and art is tricky, and I lean toward it being more of a craft.

Can you talk some more about the role technology plays at the restaurant?
We start off a new dish based on the concept of flavor profiles more than a new technique. That's an approach that may be different from a restaurant that starts off by developing a method or technique and then plugging in the ingredients and then defining the flavor profile. So that's how we start, and then it's about finding the technique to execute.

For example, we're working on a pretty traditional thing, which is a chicken velvet to serve with an abalone porridge. We're working on a way to make it even lighter and more stable than the traditional, so that we can basically put it into a siphon, aerate it, then poach, and then soufflé, and be able to hold that form. That's hard to do, since anything that expands with heat wants to retract in the cold, so it's about finding the optimal steaming temperature and finding the right emulsifiers. We've tested it maybe 30 or 40 times; there's lots of trial and error. I consulted with a food scientist in San Diego whom I've worked with many times, and as usual, we go back and forth trying out new things. We've been at this for six weeks, and we still haven't arrived at the correct technique. Will it be successful? I'm not really sure.

But once we have the technique, the next question is how to present it. Sometimes, the presentation requires special types of pieces that make it functional and make an impact on the guest, so sometimes that requires fabrication and working with a designer. It can take some time. But there are also dishes that we think about, try the next day, and run with very quickly. Those are the two extremes.

So you don't have a lab or anything like that?
No. We don't have anyone dedicated to research or development. We don't have a separate area dedicated to testing. It's a small kitchen with a very small staff, and everyone is used to maximum capacity.

How many people do you have in the kitchen?
We have ten, including the porters, which doesn't sound like a lot.

Are you considering growing that?
That's tricky. I always wanted a small kitchen. We've only been open fourteen months, and I want to make sure that any growth in staff happens slowly, in a way we can manage and control. I do feel that there are times when you have to take on a larger staff, because you don't want yourself or your chefs being bogged down by the day-to-day stuff. You want to have time to think about other things. That freedom and latitude to work on new things is very important. I don't have a research person because I am against it. It's that we just don't have the space.

How would you describe the tone and mood of the dining room?
If you come into the restaurant any night, there is such a wide array of guests in terms of age, occupation, dress, and even dining preferences. A lot of it has to do with the San Francisco area and the price points at which we operate, which are fairly high. We are lucky to be able to have a large demographic that we can draw guests from. San Francisco has been an area synonymous with innovation and technology, and the people involved in that industry are fairly young and casual, and you certainly see that in our dining room. But you also see more traditional, formal type diners. That diversity is really nice. It echoes the city.

When you walk in, I think you realize that this is a place to go dine. It's about experiencing the things that are on the table and the people that you are with. There's been a lot of comments about the restaurant being stark and empty and undecorated, and a lot of that wasn't because there was this intent in design to create a minimalist or zen feeling. It was because we wanted to use our resources to invest them on the most important things, which is what is at the table and right around you. I wanted to make that impact as close to the guest as possible. Instead of buying a $30,000 chandelier, I'd rather spend that money on a beautiful tabletop piece.

What goals do you have moving forward?
There are lots of them, and you need to have them. Making sure the restaurant continues to do well, is sustainable, is important. Sustainability is something I think about a lot. Also, paying back my partners. I want to make sure that the staff stay in the restaurant and have the opportunity to grow within the operation.

Is the restaurant doing well?
Yeah. Right now, I'm very happy with the way things are going in every aspect. We're constantly thinking about improvements, but considering how long we've been open, I'm very happy with the track we're on. I've realized that you can plan so much in advance, but that in actuality, there are so many moving parts that a restaurant really takes on a life of its own and creates its own identity as time goes on. Opening is exciting and energetic, but the character begins to show after it has begun to age a little bit.

So it's very much an infant?
Oh yeah.

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22 Hawthorne Street San Francisco, CA 94105

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