Wise Man From the East Becomes Wise Chef of the West
Chef Corey Lee, whose Korean name is Dong Min (meaning “Wise Man from the East”), is a Korean-born, American-trained chef. In 2010, Lee opened the award-winning restaurant, Benu, in San Francisco, which received the highest possible Michelin Guide rating of three stars in 2014. Lee moved to the U.S. from Korea when he was five and settled in New Jersey. Although his home at the time kept two refrigerators, one for Korean food and one for American, he says that the food at Benu is about how those two can coexist. Corey Lee shared his views on food with Seoul Journal's Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie.
SJ: Can you tell us a little about your philosophy regarding food? What drew you to the life of being a cook?
LEE : At Benu, we respect traditions and classical techniques while also applying our learned skills and knowledge. We hope to evolve those traditions and methods for diners and future chefs. I was drawn to the kitchen as a teenager while working in the dining room. The juxtaposition of focused, physical work with a creative, artistic side was very appealing to me.
SJ: What kind of food did you grow up with in your childhood?
LEE: My mother mostly cooked traditional Korean food.
SJ: What was your time at The French Laundry like?
LEE: I spent eight years working for Thomas Keller, and he was a great mentor. My experience there was very educational and prepared me, as both a chef and an entrepreneur, to open a restaurant of my own.
SJ: How much is your food influenced by traditional Korean cooking?
LEE: Sometimes we’ll use ingredients like dried anchovies and techniques like lactic acid fermentation, that are very specific to Korean cooking. Although we often use parts of Korean cuisine as a starting point or component in developing new ideas, we don't try to replicate traditional Korean cuisine.
SJ: What kind of spices and ingredients do you think are central to Korean cuisine?
LEE: Jang, soy sauce, fermented soybean paste and fermented pepper sauce.
SJ: In general, do you think the American palate is receptive to Korean cuisine?
LEE: Generally speaking, no. There are certain dishes that have a universal appeal, but for the most part I think Korean flavors are more of an acquired taste than other Asian cuisines.
SJ: In your opinion, what is it that converts cooking into cuisine? How do you convert food from something to be eaten to something that is to be celebrated?
LEE: Cooking becomes cuisine when it is deeply rooted and influenced by the customs, the limitations, and needs of an area. It is when the food that sustains a particular group of people helps to inform and reveal who they are or their lifestyle.
SJ: I understand your restaurant Benu received three Michelin stars in 2014. What was your reaction to this rare and prestigious accolade?
LEE: Immediately after getting the call, it felt kind of surreal. I grew up as a young cook in America when Michelin didn’t even have a presence outside of Europe. I would read about three star chefs in Europe, and it seemed like an unattainable level. The acknowledgement was a great feeling for the entire team.
SJ: Which are the most loved items on your menu?
LEE: While some of our most recognized courses are the “Foie Gras Xiao Long Bao” [soup dumplings filled with a combination of pork and duck or goose liver] and the “Oyster, Pork Belly, Kimchi” — a one-bite dish that reinterprets a Korean bossam — we think of the menu as a whole rather than individual dishes.
SJ: Is there one dish that you revel in preparing every time?
LEE: The xiao long bao; it’s probably the dish I am most hands-on with in the kitchen. The almost ritualistic manner in which they are prepared is something very gratifying for someone whose profession is related to craft.
SJ: Is the food you make for yourself at home significantly different from the food you make at the restaurant?
LEE: I rarely ever cook at home. On the rare occasion that I do, it is very different — simple and usually prepared very quickly.
SJ: Personally, what kind of food do you like to eat?
LEE: I like extremely simple foods that are minimally handled.
SJ: How did you become a goodwill ambassador for the city of Seoul?
LEE: I participated in Seoul’s first international gourmet culinary event, which is now known as Seoul Gourmet. During that time, there was a lot of effort put into developing Seoul’s image as a tourist destination using food. The city was interested in partnering with various people to assist with that effort.
SJ: Do you visit South Korea often?
LEE: I visit a couple of times a year, as my parents live there. Many of Benu’s partners are based there, and we also work very closely with our porcelain manufacturer KwangJuYo.
SJ: Can you tell us about your book?
LEE: Benu was published by Phaidon this past spring. Although it’s filled with recipes, it’s not necessarily meant to be cooked from. Rather, it’s an archive of our team’s hard work and a reflection on our menu.
SJ: Are there any chefs that you are particularly inspired by and/or admire?
LEE: There are too many to name, but one that comes to mind right away is another Korean-American chef, David Chang. He’s someone who took great risks and ushered in a new era of small, independently-owned ambitious restaurants — a departure from the grand, traditional restaurants of the previous generation.
SJ: What have been the biggest challenges in your career?
LEE: My biggest and ongoing challenge is, like many chefs, balancing the creative interests with financial interests.
SJ: What are your goals for the future?
LEE: I’m always looking to keep our restaurants evolving, relevant and sustainable. That includes providing opportunities for growth and creative challenges for our employees.
SJ: What advice would you give to someone wanting to open a restaurant?
LEE: Work in a restaurant for many years beforehand, and learn what it means to work within a team before being in a position to lead one.