BY SANDY STRASSER
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2015)
Benu is one of the most famous restaurants in San Francisco and one of the few which can claim to have three Michelin stars. In the exclusive world of Michelin, gastronomically valued establishments which offer ‘very good cuisine’ are awarded with a star. Two means that the specialities are ‘excellent’, and in benu’s case, three stars, meaning the food is ‘first class’ and the dishes are some of the best in the world.
What should in no case be missed upon entering benu is the view from the street directly into the kitchen where the chefs create works of fine art for the guests’ plates on a daily basis. Outside, in the modern courtyard, benches invite you to sit, chat and linger a while. The interior is flooded with warm earthy tones. The slate grey dining room has a calming effect and leads the eye straight over the accurate design – for a restaurant of this calibre, the waiting staff is absolutely approachable and welcoming.
Owner and chef Corey Lee was born in Korea and grew up in America. He utilises all his competence and knowledge in producing diverse, creative American cuisine, with a touch of Asian – equally exploring identity, culture and affiliation. He has already worked in some of the most celebrated restaurants of England, France and the USA. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal even claim that his benu is the next top restaurant in the USA. On offer are reasonably-priced set menus, where contemporary American and Korean influences fuse together. The dishes also promise a fascinating interaction of tastes which whet the appetite merely upon reading the menu. Corey Lee has invited us to have a close up ‘taster’ of his house philosophy.
How long has Benu been open for in San Francisco?
Corey Lee: For five years. The opening was in the summer of 2010.
What is special about your restaurant? What makes you different from others in the Bay Area?
C. L.: This past year, we were fortunate enough to be one of the four restaurants in the Bay Area to be recognized with three stars in the Michelin Guide. I’m especially proud to be part of that group because all of us are very different and offer a style of cooking unique to each restaurant. While we all share a common interest in expressing our region, I think Benu also reflects some of San Francisco’s rich cultural diversity.
What range of food does your menu include? What dishes attract the most attention?
C. L.: We draw on ingredients and techniques from different cultures such as Korean and Cantonese. While some of our most recognized courses are, for example, the ‘foie gras xiao long bao’ and the ‘oyster, pork belly, kimchi’– a canapé which reinterprets a Korean bossam– we think of the menu as a whole rather than individual dishes.
What groceries do you like to work with the most?
C. L.: I enjoy working with ingredients that we have access to only because we have cultivated close relationships with our purveyors. For example, if Connie Green, of Wine Forest, only has a couple pounds of wild pine mushrooms, she calls us first. Linda Tenbrink, of Tenbrink Farms, will pick us persimmons at just the right stage for preserving and clips them individually with the branch intact so we can hang them easily. We appreciate all of their effort and treasure these types of products.
Where do you get your groceries from and what criteria do they have to meet?
C. L.: In the Bay Area, we have access to an amazing amount of produce and fresh ingredients. However, we also source some of our products from Asia, such as our dried seafood from Hong Kong.
What makes San Francisco as a location so attractive for you?
C. L.: Obviously, the access to great products is attractive for chefs. The Bay Area gets first pick at California’s bounty. On the other hand, San Francisco has a very unique identity as a hub for innovation that fosters forward thinking and open-mindedness. The city’s cultural diversity has also influenced benu’s identity over the years.
Why are you devoting a book to your restaurant? What literary pleasure can we look forward to?
C. L.: I wanted to document the result of our team’s daily hard work. The book is a tangible way to share the benu experience even with people outside of our restaurant. Each recipe is accompanied by a short narrative about the inspirations behind the dish or ingredient. While it’s not intended to be cooked from, I hope it inspires the curiosity of other chefs and encourages diners to try new dishes and ingredients. I also wanted to take part in the tradition of cookbook writing. As a young cook, I looked to seminal books like Quentin Crewe‘s Great Chefs of France. The stories they expressed helped me understand the life of a chef and demands of a restaurant.
The restaurant book is available from Phaidon for Euro 49.95. It includes lots of delicious recipes and little explanations for each of the dishes.
Picture credits © Eric Wolfinger