by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim
Reputations have a habit of preceding, and it was no different when it came to two of the most established chefs on the West Coast.
“You’re not as intense as I imagined,” Roy Choi quipped to Corey Lee in front of an enthusiastic group of foodies and fans in Santa Monica in late April. “You’re a very calm and nice guy, actually. I was scared, I was ready to say, ‘Oui, Chef.’”
“That’s what I heard about you,” Lee retorted. “‘He’s a gangster.’”
On April 22, the two Korean American chefs met face-to-face for the first time for a chat in Santa Monica, Calif. as Lee kicked off his tour to promote his new cookbook, Benu (published by Phaidon), which is named after his three-Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco. The recipes are presented as a 33-course tasting menu, and Lee includes several personal anecdotes that reveal the influences behind Benu’s signature dishes.
At first glance, the chefs come across as two distinct players in the business: Choi, a visionary chef who reps L.A. hard and is responsible for single-handedly changing how the world looks at food trucks; Lee, who is renowned worldwide for his culinary skills and knowledge of French, Chinese and Korean cuisines that play out into the unique offering at Benu.
But while their products may seem like they belong to different spheres in the culinary world, Lee and Choi explained there are more similarities to their food—especially when it comes down to how their respective upbringings and backgrounds play out in the dishes.
“I’m not sure if Roy’s food is worlds apart from ours [at Benu],” Lee said in response to a question from an audience member. “I think from a consumer’s perspective, it might be. But from a chef’s perspective, from an entrepreneur’s perspective, I think there are a lot of parallels, and the more I talk to Roy, I realize that.”
“I had an upbringing that doesn’t seem like it would foster a chef’s career,” Lee added. “But I think that for those of us who were born in another country and came over to the U.S., this process of trying to recreate the food culture of our native country here in the U.S. is a very big part of our lives.”
Food writers haven’t found a specific brand to describe Lee’s food at Benu. Some have summarized it as Asian and French fusion or having Asian “influences.” Lee doesn’t subscribe to a certain brand—though he did write a book trying to explain it. At the same time, Lee admits he didn’t intend the cookbook to be as personal as it eventually became.
“When you go to explain your motivations for a dish, or the reasons why you think it’s worth documenting, that’s the kind of journey I thought was really educational for me in writing the book,” Lee explained. “Getting a better understanding of why these dishes were important to me, or where they came from, how they were conceived, and how that relates to my upbringing—a lot of it is tied to Korean food, Korean culture and Korean traditions.”
Be sure to check out our video of the highlights from Lee and Choi’s conversation as the chefs discuss their respective backgrounds, philosophies and influences in their careers—as well as their favorite Korean dishes.
Lee will be in Asia during the month of May, stopping by Hong Kong and Seoul before hitting the final leg of his tour in Toronto. On May 27, Lee will close his tour in Toronto with a conversation featuring Momofuku’s chef and founder, David Chang, who also wrote a foreword in the Benu cookbook.
The thousand-year-old quail egg, the first course on the menu. Pidan, as it is known, is usually made with duck eggs, but Lee went with quail eggs for the smaller size and a “whimsical variation” from tradition.
“How pidan was conceived and developed is one of the great mysteries and triumphs so often found in Chinese cuisine,” Lee writes. “And its enjoyment can be a great reward for the adventurous and open-minded eater.”
The beggar’s purse of treasures from the oak is composed of acorn, Iberico ham and black truffle. These are innately connected, Lee says: “It’s such an obvious and natural combination of flavors, but one that’s a product of being Korean, living in northern California, and working in European kitchens.”
“The most well-known variety, baechu kimchi … is what we make at Benu. The flavor profile is based on my mother’s–refreshing, loaded with daikon and green onion, firm in texture, not too sweet or spicy, and just a hint of seafood.”
A view of San Francisco from the Marin headlands. “Benu is very much a restaurant that’s influenced by different cultures,” Lee writes. “The cooking at Benu often explores how Asian flavors, ideas and aesthetics can harmonize with Western ones.”
The haenyeo, or “sea women,” of Jeju Island in South Korea. During his visit, Lee and his team had the chance to meet them and photograph the haenyeo as they went about their daily free-dives.
“They are the living emblems of Korean cultural heritage and embody the resilience of its people, and, in particular, the strength and self-sacrifice of its women,” Lee writes. “And for me, their unwavering spirit is much more beautiful and palpable that can be imagined through any folklore.”
All images from Benu by Eric Wolfinger