If you had never heard of Corey Lee, you'd know he was a VIC (very important chef) after reading the forewords - by Thomas Keller and David Chang - to his cookbook Benu.
At first glance, Keller and Chang couldn't appear more different: the former is known for having a calm but intense demeanour at his two Michelin three-star restaurants, the French Laundry (in California) and Per Se (in New York). Chang, meanwhile, receives much adoring press not only for his food at the many iterations of his Momofuku restaurants in New York, Sydney and Toronto, but also for his "f**k off" attitude towards vegetarians and "my way or the highway" sentiment towards diners.
But Keller and Chang have something in common other than being chefs - they're both perfectionists, and it's a quality they praise in Lee.
Keller writes that when Lee started working at the French Laundry, "He simply wanted to learn on the front lines so that he'd be in a better position to excel on a different stage. And excel he did … Corey showed maturity and thoughtfulness that belied his age … He was that rare, precocious talent who took the long view and was more than willing to pay his dues … Corey isn't content to simply tread over old ground. He is always searching, pushing himself forward even as he embraces the past."
Chang writes, "By the time I was starting out as a cook … Corey had already made a name for himself. His skills and brutal standards were the stuff of legends … 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 … There are many paths to success and Corey's path is perfection. There's no better cook technician on the planet."
Lee's tasting menu at Benu, in San Francisco, begins with a 1,000-year-old egg. So far, so Yung Kee. But Benu isn't a Chinese restaurant, and it's not in Hong Kong, where (most) people are familiar with them. And Lee doesn't serve ordinary pei dan, his are 1,000-year-old quail eggs, and they're made in-house.
Lee writes that it's a test for his diners. "Some people can't get past a black egg with a green yolk, and when I see someone's egg left untouched, I know that person is in the wrong restaurant. I don't consider our menu exotic, nor do I feel it requires an experienced palate to enjoy. Sometimes, though, it does require an adventurous one."
For those adventurous diners, there are recipes for monkfish liver with seaweed, onion juice and citrus; spring porridge with sea urchin; Okhotsk sea cucumber with shrimp stuffing and fermented red pepper sauce; sake lees with strawberry and nasturtium; and fresh and dried yuba with almonds and white chocolate.
For more recipes, go to scmp.com/topics/recipes