Master Sommelier Yoon Ha is the current Dining Room and Beverage Director at the two-Michelin star San Francisco restaurant Benu. Ha left his post at La Toque in Napa Valley to join chef Corey Lee, formerly of the French Laundry. Drawing on Lee's Western take on Asian flavors, Ha has fashioned not only a smart list, but one of the city's most respected pairing menus. In this interview Ha talks about meeting Lee, finding wines that can "expand" and "contract" with a dish, coming to terms with kimchi anxiety, and how Benu has allowed him the opportunity to reconnect with his heritage.
How did you meet Corey Lee and how did Benu come about?
We met in Napa Valley. Corey was working at the French Laundry and I was at La Toque. And, you know, to have two Korean Americans working in our field in Napa Valley was really rare. When Corey was thinking about starting up a restaurant we talked and talked and at first I was a little hesitant because I didn't want to open up another restaurant. But tasting Corey's food for a menu he had been thinking about during one of his last services at the French Laundry was eye opening. There were so many ingredients and flavors that sort of echoed my upbringing and my mother's cooking. And you know there were so many parallels: The shared heritage, the fact that we came to the US at about the same age. It felt too powerful to ignore. So I knew that working with Corey would be something very, very special, and in the end I knew I had to be a part of it.
Did you have experience before Benu pairing wine with Asian flavors?
No. On my own, but that's it. So when I started to work with Corey's cuisine I had a lot of assumptions and a lot of it was discovery. So it was really so different for me. Plus, Corey's cuisine is so intricate, the flavors are so precise and clear that his dishes have smaller openings for wine to come into play. You really have to listen to the dish to be able to pair wine because that avenue, or margin of error, is so much smaller.
What preconceptions did you have about these flavors and pairing wines with them going into Benu and what have you learned now that you've had a chance to settle in?
Corey's food is really balanced and understated and that's really an extension of who he is. And in dealing with that and those flavors I look for wines that will honor that understatement and balance in the kitchen. I try to look at his process and when I select a wine I try not to have the wine reorganize any flavors; instead I try to find wines that elongate the flavors he's created in the kitchen.
How does the wine list mirror the ethos of what Corey is trying to do, if at all?
As far as wine is concerned there are really two things about the wines at Benu that really speak to Corey's cuisine: grüner for white wine, and Ch?teauneuf-du-Pape for red. Both of these wines have a unique ability – depending on how they are engaged by the food – they have an ability to contract if, say, the dish requires the wine to be on its tiptoes or is showing bolder flavors and requires the wine to expand to meet them. So these wines – because they are so balanced – have a built in movement that allows them to adjust to the cuisine.
Since opening Benu have there been any revelatory moments in the grand context of your career, anything that's changed your perspective?
Yes, and this is very personal. I grew up in a very traditional Korean household. We'd always have kimchi and all of these other Korean foods in the fridge and I knew that when you'd go to your friends house or they'd come to yours after school you'd go in the fridge and grab sodas and juices. But we had all of these Korean foods in the fridge and that was always a source of great anxiety for me. So, part of my routine was before going to school I'd take cartons of the orange juice and milk and hide the kimchi and all the other stuff behind there so that when my friends came over they wouldn't see it. It created so much anxiety in my life.
I think a lot of children of immigrant families can identify with that.
Definitely. So, a year ago I was pouring wine at a table—it was a grüner with this little canapé course that incorporated raw oyster, pork belly, and kimchi. And as I was doing my spiel, at that moment – that night – I felt like I had come full circle. I broke down and I had to go into the office and collect myself because I couldn't believe that I was on the floor talking about kimchi and pouring a wine; in my youth, I would have never believed it because I was so stressed out and anxiety-ridden over it. That's what's been so amazing about Benu, it's allowed me to reconnect, in a way, with my heritage. I would have never expected that I'd have a restaurant job that could do that.