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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Benu the Cookbook is Gorgeous (But Not to Be Cooked From)

Posted By on Wed, Apr 15, 2015 at 4:00 PM

click to enlarge PHAIDON
  • Phaidon

One doesn’t buy a book like Corey Lee’s Benu thinking she’ll actually make something from it. After all, when an ingredient list for a dish simply called “oyster, kimchi, pork belly” calls for sodium hexametaphosphate, low-acyl gellan gum, calcium gluconate, Simplesse, xanthan gum and sodium citrate – and that’s for only one component, the kimchi whip, of an eight-component dish – recreating that in a home kitchen is probably not going to happen, unless the weekend is cleared, and one has access to a vacuum sealer, acetate sheets, a dehydrator, and a Robot Coupe.

No, one buys a book like Benu (Phaidon) to get inside the mind of a chef. And when the mind in question happens to be a chef who NYC's David Chang calls “one of the best chefs on the planet,” and the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller calls “a rare, precocious talent,” well it’s a fascinating look indeed. Lee will be appearing this Monday, April 20 at Omnivore Books to promote it.

San Francisco’s Benu has been praised for its groundbreaking Asian-fusion cuisine since it opened in 2010 – though Lee admits he doesn’t love that description. He prefers to say “the cooking at Benu often explores how Asian flavors, ideas, and aesthetics can harmonize with Western ones.”

The book is organized like an extravagant tasting menu with a few extra courses thrown in. Each dish is preceded by a full-page essay, with Lee explaining from where his inspiration came. For the “beggar’s purse of treasures from the oak,” he reminisces about his grandmother collecting acorns, which he at first saw as “a bizarre ethnic food." Only after “cracking, grinding, leaching, drying, and cooking,” them would they be magically transformed into a common Korean side dish. His interpretation uses acorn flour in the dough for the “purse,” and includes Iberico ham and black truffles inside.

With lots of full-page photographs by Eric Wolfinger – of the Bay Area’s landmarks, but also of Asian cities, Korean sea diver women and of course this highly-photogenic food – this is a book to keep on the coffee table and marvel at.

Lee’s essay about his “lobster coral xiao long bao” could be on a required reading list for any food geek, as Lee describes in exacting detail how to make the perfect soup dumpling dough.

Just don't try to make any of it. As even Lee himself writes, “There are recipes, but this is not a book intended to be cooked from.”

Corey Lee at Omnivore Books, Monday, April 20, 6:30 p.m., 3885 Cesar Chavez, 282-4712. 
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About The Author

Alix Wall

Alix Wall

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer and certified natural foods chef. Her web site is


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