Corey Lee Doesn’t Want to Over-Think or Under-Think His Food

Photo: J. Barmann/Grub Street

Yesterday Grub Street grabbed a few minutes with French Laundry alum and 2006 Chron Rising Star Corey Lee about Benu, his first solo restaurant opening in mid-August in the former Hawthorne Lane/TWO space (22 Hawthorne Lane). Long before opening, the restaurant started generating a boatload of buzz, and Lee is one of those ambitious chefs with a lot of obvious talent who tends to draw both investors and press.

Lee talked with us about his ideas of what fine dining means these days, reinterpreting Ming dynasty dishes, and his hopes for satisfying the ever more demanding (and knowledgeable) customer base out there.

Back when you were just a budding chef, or before, what did you imagine as your ideal of a restaurant?
Corey Lee: Growing up I didn’t have any aspirations to be a chef. In fact I never even considered being in the restaurant business. Although even at a very early age, when my family came over to this country, I could see that differences in food, as they relate to cultural differences, were a really important thing. I saw that food occupied a bigger role than just satiating hunger. I got my first restaurant job right out of high school, mostly because I needed a job, and as soon as I got into my first kitchen I liked that it was a very fair environment. People who do well and excel are rewarded and they advance. It’s a very fair thing. And I liked that it combined physical elements with cerebral elements, and sometimes, rarely, it involves elements of real artistry. So I wanted my restaurant to be a place where chefs could get a certain degree of mentorship and a place that rewards hard work. As for the style and the food — I want it to be someplace you come not just because you’re hungry but also because you’re looking for an experience, something unique.

To that end, where do you see the balance between the intellectual and the sensual in food?
They’re connected, and you can’t have one without the other. In order to deliver something sensual, an intellectual process is required. You might be inspired by something sensual. Like this. [Touching the smooth, sanded concrete bench in the restaurant’s courtyard.] Feeling something like this gives you a certain sense of texture, but in order to translate that into something you eat it requires a certain intellectual and physical process. That’s one of the unique things about cooking. It’s one of the only things I can think of that requires you to use all of your senses.

What would you say to people who say that with food and restaurants it’s all just about what tastes good?
I think that in some cases it is, but I find it hard to believe that anyone can say that they haven’t had food that was beautiful, or food that smelled good, or food that made them think of a certain period in their life, or a certain location, or culture, and been informed by that. If you eat something that comes from a specific time or place in the world, a specific culture, how can you not be informed by that. Or seeing a perfect, glistening piece of a fish, how can you not be moved by that? Certainly there are times when it’s just about flavor, and you just want to eat, and that’s fine. But the flipside is true, there are times when you want to have a specific, emotional, multi-sensory experience, and that’s what I want to provide.

Setting aside the differences between formal and casual dining, what do you see as the elements of the paradigm shift that seems to be happening in fine dining?
There’s definitely a shift, and in our parents’ generation, when you thought of fine dining restaurants, you went to those restaurants because you were of a certain social class. And you might not even be that into food and wine, but it was just what you did. Now, that’s changed dramatically. People go to a restaurant now because they want that experience, and it’s not like other forms of entertainment or culture where there are still more of these class divisions.

And people are becoming far more knowledgeable about food and demanding a lot more of their restaurants. So it’s not like 50 years ago where you just had to have certain things on the menu, lobster thermidor, and caviar service. Now you have to provide something unique, something personal, something inspired.

In terms of the way people dine, I think people are figuring out that the thing they enjoy most about a restaurant is the food, not necessarily the atmosphere, and they don’t want places that feel too stuffy. In the past, great product and delicate preparation had to go hand in hand with traditional formal dining and that’s no longer true.

People may not be dressing up the same way to go to a restaurant, just like when they go to the theater nowadays, but their expectations of the performance haven’t changed. They may even be higher now. And everyone still needs to be operating at the highest level.

Do you think it’s like how the knowledge and experience of moviegoers keeps demanding more of movie-makers?

Sort of, but it’s a different experience. You can have the same meal twice and it can be just as gratifying, but you can’t say the same thing about a mystery movie. There’s different things at work. And a restaurant is the most demanding sensory experience. I can’t think of anything else. Fashion might come the closest, because you can see it, touch it, wear it, smell it, and experience it on these different levels. But you’re still a couple senses short. Cuisine occupies a really unique place.

But getting back to the paradigm shift, you’re not going to have tablecloths, and there’s no door on your kitchen.
That’s true. We’re going to have matte rubber tabletops, and there’s no door on the kitchen. But we’re a quiet kitchen. We’re not doing that to make a statement. But I think it reinforces to all the cooks, being able to see the dining room, ‘these are the people we’re serving.’ And it reminds you to conduct yourself calmly and quietly in the kitchen, and to keep your station clean. It sets a certain tone.

Have you ever worked with a chef like, say Thomas Keller, who was disruptively loud in the kitchen?
I don’t know if I’ve worked with a chef who hasn’t been. All the chefs I’ve worked with have emotional sides to them, and they’re really emotionally invested in what they do.

But are there any particular stories?
There’s a chef I started working for when I was 20 years old. His name is Christian Delouvrier. He’s one of those old school French chefs. He opened Le Maurice in New York in the 80s, and he’s a four-star chef, became the chef at Lespinasse and Alain Ducasse. He’s like the quintessential French chef. And he could be really tough to work for. And he used to get so mad that he couldn’t even talk. He was so emotionally overwhelmed that he couldn’t even speak. And that got him even madder, and there’d be this snowball effect of him getting madder and madder. As much as I love him, and as much as he taught me, it definitely made an impression on me. I don’t want to be that way in the kitchen, but I can certainly relate to the emotion.

Where have you had great meals in the last year?
I love Coi. I go to R&G; Lounge like every other night. You have to have the salt and pepper crab, the winter melon soup, and the crispy chicken there. And it’s one of those restaurants that always so busy and it’s so impressive how they can keep the food so consistently good. I ate at Frances a couple of days ago and had a good meal.

This is probably a terrible interview question, but if there were a musician, or a musical equivalent for your food from any period of time, who would it be?
That’s a tough one. Laurent Korcia is someone who writes classical music but interprets it in a really personal way. And there’s something about old Beatles, and certain Led Zeppelin, that has a degree of nostalgia, and a certain sweetness to the music. There’s a sentimental expression there that I relate to in terms of food.

Is there a dish that you’ve made that you would compare to one of those?
As it relates to Laurent Korcia – have you ever heard this? [plays “Ymeji’s Theme” on his iPhone]. That’s certainly one song that I relate to in terms of cuisine. It’s kind of melancholy, full of emotion. There’s one dish we’re doing: it’s a faux shark fin, based on shark fin soup. When you hear this song, for me, it feels like it’s from a different era, but it’s a modern song. And when I think about shark fin soup, it’s from a different era. They’ve been making this dish since the Ming dynasty. I think about royals eating this dish, people working on this dish for centuries. And we’re taking that dish, and not using a real shark fin, but interpreting it and taking those flavors and doing something that’s our own, and new.

Earlier: Corey Lee Explains the Name of His Upcoming Restaurant Benu [Grub Street]
Benu School [Inside Scoop]
Corey Lee to Take the TWO Space [Grub Street]

Corey Lee Doesn’t Want to Over-Think or Under-Think His Food