Corey Lee’s story is the story of the modern American chef. It is, for one thing, an immigrant’s story. Corey came to Western food as a stranger, but fell in love with the grand cuisine of France. He studied it ferociously, and brought to his practice of it the Korean flavors of his heritage. When he discovered the brilliance of Chinese cooking, he hungrily immersed himself in that, too. As a result, people have mislabeled his food with a number of descriptors in various permutations—French, Chinese, Korean, French-Chinese, French-Korean, modernist, classical—but the simple fact is that his cooking is his own.
By the time I was just starting out as a cook, still wet behind the ears, Corey had already made a name for himself. His skills and brutal standards were the stuff of legend. The chefs I worked for had witnessed them firsthand working with Corey at Lespinasse—one of the great kitchens of the modern era. They said he was a tyrant, a short guy who made an outsized impression. (Later, his cooks would come to call him “the terrorist,” because if your mise en place didn’t pass muster, he’d “blow up your shit.”) He made life miserable for everyone else with his tireless perfectionism, because he had to be the best and that required the people around him to be the best, too.
Cooks love to talk trash. This is a fact of our industry. To be a cook means always to struggle for the respect of your peers. No matter who or how good you are, other cooks will inevitably be cutting you down behind your back—in whispers on the line or in shouts at the bar after work. The only chef I know excepted from this truth is Corey Lee. They definitely talked about Corey, but they never talked trash.
I knew little about the man himself back then. I knew he was my age. I assumed he was white, a Lee like Robert E. Then came the news that he was moving to The French Laundry. This was huge. At the time, Thomas Keller was an impossible being. To work for him at the Laundry was to travel to another world, like leaving your Podunk archdiocese to become a cardinal at the Vatican. I descended into a shame spiral. How does this guy know so much more than me? We’re the same age. And, wait, he’s Korean, too? In an instant, he went from a gossiped-about gunslinger to full-on mythological hero.
Corey’s legend continued to grow, even from across the country. Many of the stories about him are impossible to confirm and others are too brutal to recount here. But one of my favorite apocryphal tales was of the night that Corey grew frustrated with his staff at the Laundry and told them to stand quietly and watch, as they’d be better served observing than cooking. He proceeded to carry dinner service on his own shoulders, unassisted. I don’t care whether or not it’s true—I believe it.
While Corey piloted the most famous kitchen on earth, I was a lowly cook, slinging noodles and pork buns under the radar in the East Village. I never thought I’d get to know him—why would I? But after his time in Napa, Corey came back to open Per Se with Keller in New York. Through whatever strange set of circumstances that led my career to take off, and through mutual friends, eventually Corey and I got to know each other a little bit. I doubt he thought anything of it, but this was both a happy and soul-crushing development for me. I realized immediately that I was never going to be Corey, or rise to his level. Coming face to face with the personification of one’s own limits is a strange sensation. But what makes this a happy story is that in meeting Corey, I also realized I didn’t have to be competitive with him. I had to be my own person. Knowing that Corey is, and will always be, a much greater cook allowed me to grow and find my own way. There are many paths to success and Corey’s path is perfection. There’s no better cook technician on the planet. Pound for pound, he is one of the best chefs on earth.
Control is the word I always think of when it comes to Corey. He imposes his knowledge, skill, desire, and will on the kitchen. He’s always going to know more about the ingredients than you. He’s going to know the farmer who produced the carrots, and the exact way to cut a veal bone to extract the most gelatin. He’s going to know the cost, the recipe, and the history of every dish. Rarely do you come across the super-talented person who is matched with a superior work ethic. When you do, you get a supernova.
After opening Per Se, Corey eventually returned to the French Laundry to take over as chef de cuisine. When, after a total of nine years in Keller’s stable, I heard he was leaving, I went to Yountville to eat a final meal and pay my respects. Corey cooked his own menu for me: no cornet of salmon, no French Laundry classics, half the courses came with chopsticks. It was the most unbelievable meal I’ve ever had. Everything showcased his technical abilities. He made a beautiful tomato tarte tatin resting on a layer of burrata cheese—still the most perfect dish I know. He served me turtle soup. I had traveled to Kyoto specifically to learn how to make snapping turtle soup, and I still didn’t feel proficient or confident enough to try it in my restaurants. I tasted Corey’s and realized that he had taught himself how to make turtle soup and it was as good as the ones in the best kaiseki restaurants in Japan.
It was insane, and yet it was still just a prelude to what was ahead. My first meal at Benu blew me away. Here was Corey at his most uncompromising, and now completely untethered. The food at Benu is pure Corey Lee. The dishes are gorgeous, for one. That’s one of Corey’s gifts. But more importantly, he merges his encyclopedic command of both Asian and French cooking with modern techniques. And yet, miraculously, the technique remains in the shadows, almost invisibly supporting what he does.
The century egg—the opening salvo of the tasting menu at Benu—distills everything special about Benu into one single bite. For one thing, it shows you just how big Corey’s balls are. The century egg, at least traditionally, is notoriously difficult for Western diners to wrap their heads around. It is sulfurous in smell, bouncy in texture, alien in appearance. But Corey is insistent—insistent that his diners broaden their minds, and insistent that he can do things others can’t. His egg is better—tamed but still wildly delicious, a perfect intersection between technique and understanding of what came before. This one small dish clues you in to what lies ahead at Benu: ancient techniques, updated, reformulated, and ultimately improved.
The highest compliment I can give to Benu is that it’s the type of restaurant that I want my cooks to work in. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can still learn how to cook properly. They don’t take any shortcuts. The restaurant is the epitome of professionalism. Every detail is considered. Corey has a very holistic approach to how he cooks and runs a restaurant, and his cookbook is a window into that, into decades of hard-won knowledge and the rigorous application of that knowledge in the kitchen.
In this day and age of people going bananas for chefs and food, I don’t think anybody understands how remarkable and singular Corey is. There’s never going to be anyone like him again. His skill set, what he’s done, and how he’s done it—it’s everything a cook should aspire to.
It shows in the loyalty of those under his command. As much as the stories about Corey are about fear and dominance, his cooks love him. He takes care of his employees. He pays for extra plane tickets to bring his team with him when he’s invited to cook abroad. They understand that when he’s serious about something, he doesn’t mess around. But the cooks I know who have earned his trust would die for his cause. I’ve been to a Benu Christmas party. I’ve seen the looks of admiration on his staff’s faces. (Incidentally, these Benu guys know how to party. I’m just saying.)
As an outsider to Corey’s kitchens, I’m thrilled to clutch his book in my hands. I was a fan of Corey’s before I could call him a friend. It means a great deal to me for this book to exist, not only for my own benefit, but for my cooks to read and learn from. For those outside the industry, Corey has just as much to offer. Like I said, Corey’s is the story of the modern American chef. But really, it’s the story of America itself: an outsider, forcing his way to success through hard work and an unflagging spirit.
Benu by Corey Lee, $59.95 Phaidon 2015, www.phaidon.com