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How Benu’s Corey Lee Attained the ‘Unattainable’ Third Michelin Star

The San Francisco chef on earning his third Michelin star, the importance of writing a cookbook, and why he's not looking to leave the Bay Area anytime soon.

Eric Wolfinger

Last week, San Francisco chef Corey Lee's Benu earned one of the most coveted distinctions in the restaurant world: three Michelin stars. But earning a third star doesn't just mean an increase in reservations, says Lee.

In the following interview, Lee explains how as a young cook, Michelin was something "unobtainable" and "unattainable," an honor saved for only the hardest working chefs in Europe. He describes getting the call from Michelin letting him know of his third star as "surreal" and says that, for his team, it means "your work is acknowledged and appreciated." He also explains how writing a cookbook impacted the cuisine at Benu, as has thinking about a casual Korean concept, and opening his bistro Monsieur Benjamin earlier this year.

Congratulations on the third star.
Thank you very much. We're happy about it.

How did you learn the news of the third star?
Michelin has a tradition of calling the chefs who receive a star the morning or afternoon and this happened in the same way, where I received a call from the editor of the Michelin Guide [in] North America. The same person that's called me the last three years.

How did you feel when you found out?
It was kind of surreal. I wasn't really sure what to say. I was kind of lost for words. Obviously, it's fantastic news, but it just took a little while to process.

Were you surprised by the third star?
Yes, of course. It's one of those things, especially being an American chef and growing up and working in a time when Michelin didn't even have a presence outside of Europe. Michelin itself was just this very unobtainable thing. I grew up as a young cook reading about three star chefs in Europe [and] France and it was an unattainable level. So, of course it was a surprise.

How did your team respond to the news?
"You can just take a breath and feel good that your work is acknowledged."They're so happy. I think that's one of the biggest things about something like this, is that you have a team of people who work so hard. We're working 70, 80 hours a week and that time is spent in a 1,000 square foot room and you don't have interaction with the guests all the time. It's day in, day out and it's one of those moments you can just take a breath and feel good that your work is acknowledged and appreciated and it's just a great feeling for everyone involved.

Did you do anything to celebrate?
Yes. We went to our new bistro, Monsieur Benjamin after service and we were there until the late morning just enjoying each other's time and celebrating the occasion.

What does the third star mean for the restaurant? Does it change anything day to day?
You know, it's only been a week. In terms of how we're operating, it doesn't seem like anything has changed. It means, these restaurants, especially the kind of restaurant we are at Benu, we're not doing the most conventional, obvious kinds of food. To be recognized and validated, in a way, by such a respected guide that's rooted in tradition, I think it's helpful for a restaurant like us to keep a steady flow of interest and guests. It really does help our restaurant be more sustainable.

Benu. [Photo: Benu/Facebook]

Have you actually seen any difference in reservation inquiry since getting the third star?
Oh, yes, I mean, we noticed an immediate uptick in reservations, from the time it was announced. I think, you know, we're a small restaurant and we're open five nights a week only. So, we've been fortunate enough over the years to stay full and stay busy. But definitely, more than any other accolade or any kind of recognition that we've received, this one has impacted reservation interest and demand.

Monsieur Benjamin opened right around the time that's generally considered the cutoff for the guide. Do you have Michelin aspirations for that restaurant too?
"I don't necessarily have Michelin aspirations for any restaurant."

Well, I mean, to be perfectly honest, I don't necessarily have Michelin aspirations for any restaurant. Even at Benu, really. I mean, I think you open restaurants because you feel like you have a product that people will enjoy and you can offer and do well. Then you have staff that can execute the concept well. That's the reason why we open restaurants. I think the recognition like Michelin is the byproduct of doing something that's very true to you.

think if you open restaurants or you're operating in a way that's very focused on how to get a star or how to get your second star or how to get your third star, those goals are a little bit hollow. It's really about doing something that's meaningful, that you believe in, and working tirelessly to achieve that. Then, if you can be recognized by a guide like Michelin, or be recognized in that way, it's the byproduct of all that work.

Monsieur Benjamin. [Photo: Patricia Chang]

You're also working on a cookbook for Phaidon. Where in the process are you at with that?
I finished, I just turned it in a couple months ago and we've been doing edits, but I'm totally done. The last year and a half, so much time and thought has been put into that work and we just finished. It's a pretty long journey for me and for us and I'm very excited to see, to have it in my hands.

What are you hoping readers will take away from the book?
"The cookbook was really a catalyst for the way our food has evolved and the kind of menu that we do now. "There's a couple things involved in the book. Writing the book and going through the process of writing that book was, I think, really important in the evolution of our restaurant. The moment you start to explain things or articulate ideas that just live in your head, you start to understand them a lot more and I think that's really focused the identity of the restaurant in the past year or two. That book was really a catalyst for the way our food has evolved and the kind of menu that we do now. Just going through the process of explaining each dish, understanding why there's a certain thing a certain way and why some things don't work. It's distilling all these ideas down to something that is important to you and the restaurant. So that's a big part of the restaurant. Not just the physical book itself, but the process that I went through in writing it.

In terms of the hopes I have for the readers, it's kind of a two part question. I think there's the readers who are chefs and in the industry and then there are people who are not professionals. And what I hope is that it will help people look at some of the products that we use, some of the ingredients or some of the techniques that we use in a new way. I mean, we have a lot of each ingredients that I think are maybe not the most common in western kitchens. I think it would be great if chefs take an interest in that and start to explore what can be done with those ingredients because I think there's so much potential there and it hasn't really been utilized by western chefs or chefs outside of Asia.

Then, for Asian chefs who are familiar with these ingredients, I think the vast majority of those preparations are very traditional, which is important of course. I think it's great to be able to look at these ingredients that you might not have worked with before in a traditional way with an open mind and see what other possibilities are out there.

Then for non professionals, I hope it spurs people to go into dining experiences, again, with an open mind and feel a sense of excitement in wanting to try some of these things maybe they haven't had before. Then similarly, I think for diners who are not professionals who have had this eating experience in a very traditional way, maybe they can go to a restaurant or look at these preparations and see that there are different ways to prepare them and just because they've had it traditionally before, doesn't mean there aren't new and exciting ways to use them.

What about the casual Korean concept that you've alluded to over the years? Is that still something you are thinking about?
That's kind of been a pet project of mine for many years. Obviously, I'm Korean and I think the Bay Area and many parts of America could benefit from a good Korean restaurant. I think the Bay Area is really poised for [it], because so much of the way the cooking and the food culture is in Korea is about taking a very simple approach to cooking.

"I think that the Bay Area could offer a really exciting interpretation of Korean food."

And someone else mentioned that so much of Korean cooking is based on vegetables and preservation of vegetables, and I think that the Bay Area could offer a really exciting interpretation of Korean food. But, we have not made much headway on that other than just doing some research on the side, which has led, actually, to some innovation at Benu, working with different kinds of ways of fermenting vegetables, and preparations and condiments. But, it's a project that I hope to do one day. I don't have anything planned immediately.

Would you ever see yourself expanding beyond the Bay Area?
I don't know. I'm pretty content with what we're doing now. Expansion is a tricky word because, obviously, working in a kitchen and being a chef is a very hands on profession. The kind of chef that I am, certainly I know that I would want to be really involved and hands on with anything that we do. But at the same time, watching the development of all the chefs in the two restaurants and seeing how they're maturing and how they're ready for more opportunity and development. It gets you more confident that you can do something and trust that to someone and stay focused on what you're doing already. So, I don't know. I don't have any plans and I'm pretty content with where we are right now.

Also, opening Monsieur Benjamin was something that gave me some confidence and being able to be comfortable in trusting people to head up an operation, like Jason Berthold, who is the chef at Monsieur Benjamin. He and I worked together for many years and he is the chef at Monsieur Benjamin. I'm not the chef there. He's the one who's there day in, day out, ensuring the quality is there and ensuring the consistency is there. Being able to have that kind of confidence in someone is very rewarding, actually.

Benu

22 Hawthorne Street, , CA 94105 (415) 685-4860 Visit Website

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