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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Interview with Benu's Corey Lee: Changing Fine Dining From the Inside Out

Posted By on Wed, Oct 27, 2010 at 11:47 AM

Corey Lee. - BENU
  • Benu
  • Corey Lee.

In my review of Benu this week, I noted ― more observation than criticism, really ― that while chef-owner Corey Lee may have streamlined and modernized the trappings of haute cuisine, a meal there feels very much in the spirit of San Francisco's highest-tier restaurants: hushed, poised, meticulous in its formalities. But as a critic who spends more of his time in bistros and dives than the four-star realm, I was curious about why so much of the advance press would talk up how much Lee was changing up his approach to haute-cuisine food. When I interviewed Lee just before finishing the piece, I asked the longtime Thomas Keller protégé about this quiet revolution.

SFoodie: From what I've read about Benu, it seems like you've personally invested a lot of energy in the aesthetics of the place, for example, designing all the porcelain yourself.

Lee: People think that food is the most important aspect of a restaurant, but all these [visual] things have an impact on your experience when you're there. How can you separate the food from the piece that it sits on? There were a couple dishes that we needed certain shapes for; it was important to design that shape to fit the technique.

In what ways have you departed from what you were doing at the French Laundry?
First thing, definitely, is the aesthetics of the restaurant. It's a simple and austere restaurant. Some people can't get past that it doesn't have certain amenities.

Like what?
Tablecloths, that's one we hear about most. And flowers at every table.

Plus, the food has a certain point of view, and it comes down to the

fact that some people enjoy that and some people don't. It's a

subjective opinion, really. What we're trying to do is to provide

something unique and different, not just dishes that can be served at

dozens of high-end restaurants. We're not hiding behind truffles and

caviar ― though I love those ingredients and use them.

A lot of it comes down to costs, the hidden things that most people

wouldn't see. At many high-end restaurants you're paying for a thousand

things that don't touch your table ― the decor, the staffing, the way

the maintenance is, certain silverware and [dishware] pieces ― those

things add up quickly. Even though our menu isn't a cheap menu, we're

using that cost to put things on diners' plates.

We offer the

same tasting menu to every single guest. It was important to offer that

to everyone ― we didn't want the restaurant to be different from one

guest to another. There are no separate tasting menus for critics, VIPs,

or chefs.

In what ways, then, are you continuing what you were doing at the French Laundry?
The relationship with our purveyors. That's really what kept me in San

Francisco. Thomas is a chef who has cultivated great, loyal

relationships over the years. The impact of that on the food is

enormous. And I wanted not only to maintain the relationships I'd

developed but to create new ones. Ultimately, we're a product-driven


Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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