When Corey Lee opened Benu in San Francisco last summer, critics wondered if the French Laundry alum’s first independent fine-dining foray would survive in a time when diners were embracing more casual concepts. But the popular and breathlessly praised venture has demonstrated that America’s appetite for haute cuisine is as strong as ever. To mark Benu’s nomination for a JBF Best New Restaurant Award, we interviewed chef Lee last week. Check it out below.
JBF: What’s the story behind the name Benu?
CL: The benu is the phoenix bird, which stands for renewal and longevity. It’s what we’ve done with our careers through this opening, and what we hope to accomplish with the restaurant.
JBF: What lessons from the French Laundry did you take with you to the new restaurant?
CL: Many. I think most of it is applied to the things that guests never see: the way we clean, our purveyor relationships, our organization, our language.
JBF: Based on what we’ve read, it sounds like you had a pretty clear vision for the kind of restaurant Benu would be. Now that you’re several months into it, is there anything you would do differently? Have you made any adjustments?
CL: There are many things I would have done differently, but that's always the case. When we opened we had an à la carte menu with over 30 items, but more than 80 percent of our guests were ordering the tasting menu, so we had to adjust for that. It's about awareness, response, and evolution.
JBF: A lot of the menu reads like a nod to your Korean background. What are your favorite Korean ingredients to work with?
CL: We use a lot of ingredients from all over East Asia. But I think that is what American cuisine—and culture, for that matter—is about: the interplay of different cultures and backgrounds. Currently I’m enjoying the sea salt from Sinan Island in Korea. It's the best finishing salt I have ever tasted.
JBF: Has Thomas Keller come into Benu for a meal? If so, what was it like to cook for your mentor?
CL: Yes, he has. The entire restaurant was very excited to have him dine with us and I brought the entire kitchen staff into the dining room so I could explain his impact on Benu to everyone. One of my goals was to be able to offer every guest the same tasting menu that I would serve to a critic, a friend, or a chef like Thomas Keller. I’m happy to say that he had the same menu that everyone else did that evening.
JBF: What is your favorite dish on the menu?
CL: The fresh noodles that we make every day for our tasting menu. I'm serving them with shrimp roe, tarragon, and chicken jus.
JBF: Benu does a convincing and sustainable imitation of shark fin soup. How is it made?
CL: We make a traditional Cantonese Soup Supreme, but we don't thicken it with the typical modified starch. Ours has a texture of a light bouillon instead of a thick tang (the Cantonese term for soup or stock). We take some of that soup and add a combination of gelling agents, which give it an elasticity and brittleness that echoes traditional shark fin soup.