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Food Equals Identity For Chef Corey Lee

Now He’s Cookin’

From picky eater to winner of the James Beard Award, chef Corey Lee is scaling the culinary heights.

Story and photographs by VIVIEN KIM THORP

In some ways, Corey Lee could be seen as your typical 30-something bachelor. He works hard, lives alone and keeps no perishables in his fridge (only beverages, and mostly alcohol at that). He doesn’t bother taking his shoes off when he gets home and hasn’t made breakfast in 10 years.

But then Lee, who turns 34 at the end of this year, had a James Beard Award under his belt by the time he was 28. He’s worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.S. and Europe, co-authored a book with Thomas Keller, and served for more than four years as chef de cuisine at Keller’s world-renowned French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. Now, Lee is the chef and owner of his own restaurant, Benu, which opened in San Francisco in August of 2010.

Benu was given two stars by the prestigious Michelin restaurant guide on Oct. 25. It’s a major victory for the chef.

“It’s a huge honor, and the whole thing feels a bit surreal,” Lee says. “You just do what you feel is best and hope Michelin recognizes that. But that was yesterday, and today we are already going about our work like nothing happened.”

Housed in an elegant brick building in the SoMa district, a simple silver sign features the restaurant’s name, which means “phoenix” in Egyptian. Lee picked the name as much for its meaning and sound, as for its hard-to-determine origins. The restaurant’s facade boasts large windows where passersby can stare into the bright and busy kitchen. Here, sous vide machines (which utilize a method that combines the steady heat of poaching and an airtight seal) bubble up perfectly poached sea cucumbers, and staff members meticulously slice duck flesh and patiently weigh dumpling skins, a pair at a time.

The dining room, in contrast, is dim and serene, representing a kind of understated luxury, with a neutral palette and spare modern art. It’s here that Lee nightly serves a brand of cuisine strictly his own, drawn from his more than 16 years of experience, as well as the Asian foods he loves to eat. A dish of oysters, pork belly and kimchi may find itself in the company of a fois gras-filled Chinese dumpling. Flavors such as the Japanese citrus yuzu sit alongside watercress and apples. Lee’s food is creative, complex and lauded by his peers, including Momofuku’s David Chang, who, ironically, is often quoted as a critic of the San Francisco food scene. In January, the New York Times declared Benu one of “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride,” and an early October Wall Street Journal article named it a restaurant to watch in its predictions of the world’s next star dining experiences.

Using tweezers, Lee painstakingly places chrysanthemum leaves in a bowl containing homemade tofu in a spicy kimchi-based broth. He chose these leaves because they are typically served with jjigae.

Lee, whose Korean name is Dong Min, was born in Seoul in 1977. At the age of 4, he moved to New York with his family for his father’s work as an engineer. After eight years in the States, the elder Lee decided to move back to South Korea.

The move made sense for Lee’s two older sisters, who would eventually attend university there. But Lee was only 12 years old, and his parents decided it would be an awkward time to uproot him. The next few years, his mother, a graphic illustrator, went back and forth between the two countries.

“Looking back, there were things I missed out on,” he says. “But my sense of family wasn’t affected by the separation.  I consider us to be very close.”

During those years, Lee would live in Manhattan, Connecticut and, eventually, New Jersey, where he graduated from Tenafly High School in 1995. It was then he would make a decision that would indirectly change his life’s direction.

Lee, who had no culinary aspirations, though an admittedly picky eater (no spicy foods!), had applied to out-of-state colleges. He began to realize that with his family in Korea, he didn’t want to split his time between Seoul and somewhere more remote. So he started the application process again, this time focusing on schools in New York. In the meantime, he got a job through a friend at Blue Ribbon Sushi in SoHo. It wasn’t long before he ended up in the kitchen.

“I got a real glimpse at the work chefs were doing,” he says.  “I saw how hard they worked, and that being a chef required physical strength but also creativity and, at an extreme level, artistry.” Lee also thought the career path was a fair one, if you worked hard, you did well. Eventually, the owners took a personal interest in him, encouraging Lee to go abroad. He listened, went to London and got his first experience in the world of fine dining, working at a number of restaurants including Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill. His career trajectory took off from there, with Lee climbing the ranks of elite restaurants in Europe and then New York, finally alongside Keller in California. He spent a year opening Keller’s Per Se in New York and together they co-authored Under Pressure, a book on the sous vide method of cooking.

Lee has a precise and modern approach to cooking, in which technique and research are implemented at every turn, but still take a back seat to the ingredients themselves.  Though he came at his career by happy accident, Lee always had a respect for the meaning of a meal.

Some of Lee’s preferred Korean dishes include bossam (steamed pork with oysters), maneuljong (kimchi made from garlic stalks) and ganjang gejang (soy-sauce-marinated crab).  But he says he can’t identify one single dish to symbolize what he loves about Korean food. “That’s not how Korean food is eaten,” he says. “It’s about balancing intense flavors with milder dishes, such as rice or noodles, not one dish.” Lee says owning his own restaurant has been a welcome experience. “In many ways, day to day, I’m still a chef in the kitchen,” he says. “But there’s a different sense of responsibility.” Before, great chefs like Keller entrusted their vision to him, which almost felt like a bigger responsibility to him, he says.

But now he gets to experiment more freely. “On your own, you can take more liberties,” he says. “It’s your own reputation at stake.” Still, Lee is well aware that along with his own success and that of his business partners, he has 34 employees and their families to whom he is beholden. He’s had spare time for hobbies such as golf, and when he reads, it usually reflects his industry. Lee says he feels incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to open his own restaurant, which is booked every night.

The a la carte menu changes according to season and the chef’s inspiration. The tasting menu, an intricate affair of paired textures, flavors and even aromas, changes less often.  Currently, three dishes have remained on the menu since the restaurant opened: the silky-textured monkfish liver, various takes on the 1,000-year-old egg and a faux shark fin soup, which is Lee’s interpretation of the iconic Chinese dish.

The chef says coming to the U.S. as a kid greatly influenced his perspectives on food. “I was young, but still old enough to recognize that we ate differently from most people around us,” he says. “My understanding of food was about the critical role it plays in identity and culture. Food is more than sustenance and nutrition. It’s part of who you are.”

This article was published in the November 2011 issue of KoreAm.

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Thursday's Link Attack: Kissing Leaders, Roy Choi, Violinist Jennifer Choi

Benetton’s lip-locked leader ads: bad taste?
The Globe and Mail (Canada)

Shocking photos of various world leaders in lip-lock circulated on the Internet today, stirring up a flurry of reaction.

U.S. President Barack Obama puckering up with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas giving each other a friendly peck on the kisser. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak letting bygones be bygones with a stiff smooch.

The provocative images are part of clothing brand Benetton’s new advertising campaign, unveiled on Wednesday.

The campaign – the brand’s first major campaign in a decade of largely forgettable ads – is touted as “Unhate.”

F&W Exclusive Preview: Roy Choi’s Sunny Spot
Food and Wine

What can possibly beat a sweet trip to the Caribbean? Well, this: chef Roy Choi’s version of the Caribbean. The creator of L.A.’s life-changing Kogi Korean BBQ taco trucks (and F&W Best New Chef 2010) is opening Sunny Spot on November 18 in Venice, California. “At Sunny Spot, you’re going to feel like you just washed up on your beach,” says Choi. “If I was on my beach in Jamaica, this is what I’d be making.”

Violinist Jennifer Choi on the Ethel string quartet’s ‘modern classical’
The Pitch (Kansas City, Mo.)

“Postclassical string quartet” Ethel , which focuses on works by modern composers, brings its show to the Lied Center at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 19. The performance features Philip Glass’ score to The Hours, as well as pieces by other modern composers. We recently spoke by phone with the group’s violinist, Jennifer Choi, about her experiences with Ethel and the group’s approach to music. In addition to being a successful solo artist, Choi is the newest addition to the quartet, replacing Mary Rowell, who had been with the group since its inception in the mid-’90s.

What’s it like joining a group with such a lengthy history, especially replacing a member who’d been with the group for 15 years?

Since the beginning, yeah. Well, I had known about the group for a long time. When I came to New York in ’98, that’s pretty much when they formed, as well. And I was pretty much doing the same kind of music — new music — and that kind of became my focus after a while. So I guess the transition felt pretty normal for me, and it seemed like the right thing to do. I worked with Neil — Corneilius Duffalo, the other violinist — as well as Ralph Farris, the violist, in other situations, ’cause you tend to bump into each other in New York City. So it just felt pretty good to be able to join a group like that. And it just feels really nice, because they have their repertoire and they’re really solid players, so it’s like playing tennis with a really great tennis player. You just sort of fit right in.

Lottery agency tries to recover $12.5M insider win
CBC News (Canada)

More than seven years after a Toronto-area woman cashed in a stolen $12.5-million Lotto Super 7 ticket, Ontario’s lottery corporation is trying to recoup the money, but the lengthy wait may have cost the Crown agency.

CBC News has learned that the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) filed a lawsuit in March against the woman who claimed the ticket, Kathleen Chung, and her family and associated companies for “deliberately deceiving” the corporation.

Police allege that Chung’s father and brother stole the free play ticket in 2003 from its rightful owners who validated the ticket at the Chung-managed Variety Plus store in Burlington, Ont. The duo then allegedly gave the ticket to Kathleen to claim in an attempt to cover their tracks.

The Chungs were charged in September 2010. Kathleen Chung, 30, faces charges of fraud, possession of property obtained by crime and laundering proceeds of crime. Her brother, Kenneth Chung, 28, and their father, Jun-Chul Chung, 62, were each charged with several counts of theft, possession of property obtained by crime and laundering proceeds of crime.

Bible Study Teacher Pleads Not Guilty To Sexual Assault
Patch.com (Northbrook, Ill.)

A Northbrook woman accused of criminal sexual assault in the case of a 15-year-old boy pled not guilty in Cook County Circuit Court in Skokie Tuesday.

Na Choi, 24, is also charged with aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

County Man Charged With Fraudulent Business Practices
Fairfax News (Virginia)

A 50-year-old Great Falls man has been charged with obtaining money by defrauding a business investor.

According to police, the 37-year-old victim entered into a business contract in April with Hong Ku Kim of 746 Ellsworth Avenue in which she invested $200,000 into Kim’s company, Greentopia-Timonium.

According to the contract, the victim’s money was to be placed in escrow so she could obtain her E2 Visa. This Visa allows a national of a treaty country — a nation with which the United States maintains a treaty of commerce and navigation with — to be admitted into the U.S. when investing a substantial amount of capital in an American business.

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Korean-American leader blasts opposition party over FTA row
Dong-A Ilbo

The head of a Korean-American association based in Atlanta has criticized leading members of Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party for shifting their position on the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

“Under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, supreme council party member Chung Dong-young and chairman Sohn Hak-kyu came to the U.S. and asked leaders of Korean-American groups to support the Korea-U.S. FTA,” said Yoo Jin-cheol, president of the Federation of Korean Associations, USA., in a phone interview with the Dong-A Ilbo.

Top Chef Texas Recap – Week 3

by Monica Y. Hong

This week our two Korean American chefs, Beverly Kim and Edward Lee, give us a taste of their cooking styles and personalities as we finally get to see them duke it out on Top Chef Texas.

As Beverly is getting ready at the Top Chef house for the first day of real competition, she unfolds a piece of paper and places it up on her mirror.

“I printed out a sheet that says, ‘Congratulations, Beverly Kim Clark!!!! You have won Top Chef Season 9 and $125,000!!!!!’ I look at it everyday. If I can believe it, I’m going to achieve it. I keep telling myself that.” Another week, another trusty piece of paper. Last week’s “I CAN I MUST I WILL” worked out for her so all I can say is to each his own.

The 16 “cheftestants” enter the kitchen for their first quickfire challenge only to be met with a terrarium filled with snakes. Each chef has a small covered box in front of them that contains a succulent serpentine surprise. They have to cook up some rattlesnake in one hour, with the best viper winning them immunity and $5,000. Sssuper! Continue reading

Friday's Link Attack: Pepero Day, Asian dining, Jeju Island

Today is Pepero Day in South Korea
Giant Robot

The calendar says 11/11/11, which means one thing in South Korea: Pepero Day. They call it Pepero Day because these skinny, chocolate covered biscuits resemble the numbers that make up the date 11/11. It’s huge holiday over there, with markets and convenient stores decked out with fancy displays and gift baskets of these snacks, a knock off of the more familiar Pocky brand. The concept is that you gift boxes of these confectionary treats to your significant other as a symbol of your affection.

Jonathan Gold’s 99 Essential L.A. Restaurants 2011
L.A. Weekly

I like trucks, taco tables and pop-ups as much as the next guy, but I was really hoping to find evidence pointing to a resurgence in fine dining, powered by exposure to complex cooking on food television, and the vast numbers of people coming out of training programs like Cordon Bleu or the CIA. Alas, I did not.

Instead, when I looked at the new heroes of cooking in America, I kept seeing Lukshon’s Sang Yoon, Kogi’s Roy Choi and ramen-slinging David Chang of New York’s Momofuku: Asian-born guys classically trained in European techniques, working in great American kitchens, who decided to redirect their imagination toward street food. Their dishes have a directness of flavor, and their high-low juxtapositions still have the ability to shock, even in a world where pandan leaf and calamansi lime have become nearly as common as salt and pepper.

Danji’s Hooni Kim Hits Tori Shin Early for the Good Stuff
Eater NY

Chef Hooni Kim of Danji praises Upper East Side yakitori staple Tori Shin.

“I get my yakitori fix at Tori Shin. It’s usually filled with Japanese businessmen and the decor, service, etc give it a real authentic feel. I like to watch the grill chefs twirl the skewers so rhythmically it looks like they’re playing an instrument. My favorites are the following skewers: skin, gizzard, and wing. If you get there early enough you can try the specials which include knee bone, cartilage, hearts, and livers.”

Theater review: ‘The Language Archive’ at East West Players
Los Angeles Times

The play, which won the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and premiered at South Coast Repertory last year, depends considerably on its actors’s charms. Happily, director Jessica Kubzansky’s cast mines the comedy and pathos of Cho’s appealing characters: Chang exudes a youthful buoyancy, and Mashita’s smaller roles are played with brisk, delightful discipline. Yu’s droll, relationship-challenged George sells the play’s quicksilver emotional shifts, keeping us invested in his journey. “We are the only two speakers of [our] language,” a desperate George explains to his wife, referring to that unique dialect of private jokes and shorthand that develops within a relationship over time. Forget the linguistics of lost cultures — it takes two for pillow talk.

The play’s preciousness can diminish its dramatic power, and this production doesn’t always find the edges. Cho tends to tell us things about feelings when we’d rather see them played out. Still, “The Language Archive” poignantly anatomizes the speeches and silence of love, requited and not.


Family of woman killed by falling 70-foot tree explores lawsuit
Los Angeles Times

The father of a woman who was killed when a nearly 70-foot eucalyptus tree fell on her car in a Costa Mesa intersection has hired a Beverly Hills lawyer to explore filing a lawsuit.

Haeyoon Miller, 29, was sitting at a red light near Newport Harbor High School when the tree, planted in a median, crashed onto her blue Hyundai.

According to witnesses, emergency crews were able to lift the tree but then it slipped back onto the car.

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Flushing clinics in Medicare sweep
Queens Chronicle

Four Queens residents have been charged in federal court with submitting about $11.7 million in fraudulent Medicare claims from two medical clinics in Flushing.

An indictment charges that Ho Yon Kim, 85, of Flushing; Hoy Yat Kam, 57 of Flushing; Elaine Kim, 50, of Bayside; Gilbert Kim, 59, of Bayside; Peter Lu, 36, of Manhattan and John Knox, 54, of the Bronx submitted $11.7 million in false claims through the URI Medical Center, believed to be on Farrington Street in Flushing, and Sarang Medical PC believed to be on 38th Ave.

South Korea beats UAE 2-0 in World Cup qualifier
Yahoo Sports

World Cup regular South Korea was closer to booking a spot in Asia’s fourth and final round of qualifiers for Brazil 2014 with a hard-fought 2-0 win over United Arab Emirates on Friday.

Lee Keun-ho and captain Park Chu-young scored late second-half goals to keep the unbeaten Koreans on top of Group B after four matches.

South Korea beat UAE 2-1 at home a month ago, but didn’t expect as hard a match as it got on Friday.

Whistler Fest to honor quartet
Variety

The Whistler Film Festival will honor actors Patton Oswalt, Andy Serkis, Jay Baruchel and director Jennifer Yuh Nelson during its 11th edition, running Nov. 30-Dec. 4.

Nelson, director of DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda 2,” will be honored with the WFF’s first Trailblazer in Animation award, which will be presented by Gaydos on Dec. 3. Nelson is the first woman to solo-direct an animated film from a major studio.

Beyond tangerines and palm trees: Jeju’s unique culture
Yonhap News

Every culture, by definition, is unique, and especially so is that of Jeju Island, a volcanic tourist attraction off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula.

Jeju’s culture has developed over thousands of years as a result of its people’s relationship with nature, animistic religion and mythology.

The first place in the world to receive UNESCO designations in all three natural science categories, Jeju has its cultural foundation in the animistic belief among its people that the island is home to 18,000 gods.

Healthy Alternatives to Binge-Drinking a New Trend at Office Gatherings
Chosun Ilbo

Getting pass-out-drunk on heady combinations of beer and soju is almost expected by Korean companies whenever work get-togethers are organized, but many corporations are bucking the trend by refocusing such events on healthier pursuits.

One company that handles publicity for food and beverage and apparels makers in Seoul found that its booze-drinking sessions were leaving its employees drained and unproductive. This prompted it to embark on a high-octane evening trip that let them vent their stress in other ways, such as by screaming their way through hair-rising roller-coaster rides.

“We often work overtime in the evening and the workers get really stressed out,” said the head of the company. “But when we are forced to attend company dinners, staff often complain that they get even more tired, so we decided to replace such gatherings with trips to an amusement park.”

Jeju – The Island
Vimeo

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October Issue: Chef Rachel Yang Speaks the Language of Food

The Language of Food

Chef Rachel Yang never quite felt comfortable in the U.S. But then she started cooking.

by Eugene Yi

Rachel Yang grew up a parachute kid, her parents uprooting her at age 15 from Korea to New York.

“It was really tough. I don’t think I’ll ever send my kids away when she’s a teenager,” she said in her accented but rapid English, a pace learned from years spent barking in kitchens. “There’s a lot more that you can learn at that age, better than trying to learn an entirely different culture and language.”

Still, at the turn of the century, she found herself with a degree from Brown University and a bright future ahead of her. The experiment in long-distance parenting appeared to have been successful. But she wasn’t sure what to do next, so she took a cooking class on a whim.

“It was like discovering a third language, a universal language everyone speaks,” she said.

She quickly found work with some of the superstars of French cuisine in New York City: Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud. After a few years, she got the chance to head a kitchen serving a modern take on Korean cuisine.

“That’s kind of where I got reintroduced to Korean food,” she said. “It was something I was eating almost every night at home, but never was something I thought I’d cook.” The experimentation with Korean flavors had begun. Continue reading

Chef Roy Choi Takes Reins At Venice Restaurant

Culinary star Roy Choi added another restaurant to his rapidly growing empire after being named head chef at the swanky Beechwood Kitchen in Venice, according to LA Weekly.

Choi replaced former Top Chef season 5 contestant Jamie Lauren, LA Weekly reported.

Chef Jamie Lauren is out and Choi is in at the sleek New American restaurant in Venice. Owner Dave Reiss has asked Choi to step in and “provide some new direction for the kitchen while making plans to renovate and update the dining space,” according to Alice Shin, Choi’s PR and Twitter maven. Get ready for Choi’s most American menu to date, one that’s “laid-back, beachy and contemporary, while expressing some of the classic idiosyncrasies of Roy’s imagination.”

Photo via WSJ.