Chef Name: Corey Lee
Three Michelin stars for Benu.
James Beard Award – Best Chef West 2017.
How old were you when you started cooking professionally?
What’s your earliest and fondest first memory of food?
Eating a banana that my grandmother bought me at the fruit market in Korea. At the time, they were not importing them and it was some sort of rare delicacy – a real treat.
Which chefs inspire you most and why?
There are so many. The first one that comes to mind would be Thomas Keller. I spent so many years working for him, and he was a huge influence on my life. Then there are the chefs of my generation that I look up to, like David Chang and René Redzepi. There are also chefs, just as influential, who I’ve never even met and whose food I’ve only experienced through recipes and cookbooks, like Frédy Girardet or Michel Bras.
What are your two favourite cookbooks and why?
The Great Chefs of France by Quentin Crewe. It’s not necessarily a cookbook with recipes, but rather a profile on the lives of these great restaurateurs and the level of commitment it takes to run these types of restaurants. I must have read that book a dozen times.
The Escoffier Cookbook. We take that book for granted and look at it as full of traditional recipes, but it was ahead of its time in terms of how it’s arranged. I have a greater appreciation for it now that I can see how modular and organized it was. It allowed him to produce so many recipes and share the building blocks to understanding the grand French cuisine.
Which two ingredients could you not live without?
Water and salt.
What is your favourite comfort food to cook at home?
Really nicely cooked short grain rice.
If you could eat at any Michelin star restaurant in the world today, where would it be and why?
Noma. It’s been the most influential restaurant of the current generation and unfortunately I haven’t been yet.
And who would you take as your guest?
Brandon Rodgers, our executive chef. He has been with us since the beginning. We’ve gone through so much together (including the opening of Benu), and it would be great to share a meaningful culinary experience like that.
What do you look for in a good chef?
A sharp palate, humbleness, and stamina.
What advice would you give to chefs starting their career paths now?
I would remind them that their passion for food and cooking can be utilized in so many ways. Be sure that a life in a professional kitchen is going to gratify you. As a chef, you need to be able to find value and satisfaction at a very basic level – working with your hands to make something nutritious and satisfying for someone else.
Corey Lee is Chef/Owner at Benu.