What have you eaten on this trip to Hong Kong? "Last night, we ate at Under Bridge Spicy Crab, in Wan Chai, and Richard Ekkebus [of Amber restaurant] brought four bottles of whisky. We had the crab as mild as possible because I can't take spicy. Everyone says, 'What kind of Korean are you?' but I got a little spoiled when I was a kid. When I was growing up, my mother would make one dish for the family and one [less spicy] dish for me. I was never forced to get acclimated to really spicy food."
What's the first dish you cooked as a child? "The first thing I cooked was for a family Thanksgiving dinner. I think it was baked ziti. It was pretty bad. I was probably eight or nine. We had really interesting American holidays - they were part traditional and then we would have a smorgasbord of things: turkey, kimchi pajeon, baked ziti."
Why did you decide to be a chef? "I'm not sure if it was a real decision. I started working in restaurants before I ever really wanted to be a chef. I was put in a restaurant environment and I was able to observe chefs at work and I felt it was something I was very interested in. For many years, I thought it was something that happened accidentally. But in writing the book [ Benu, published earlier this year], I realised that my whole life had been leading up to being involved in food in some way."
Were yours the typical Asian parents who didn't want their son to be a chef? "My mother was like that. It took a long time for her to come around, to support the idea of me being a chef. But my father was actually really liberal - he worked for a large construction company as an engineer. He went that whole corporate route. In 1997 [as the Asian financial crisis unfolded], he was forced into early retirement because his company went under. So he was very supportive and said, 'I took the traditional route, worked in one corporation for 30-something years and look what happened.' So he sort of pushed me to pursue what I was interested in."
How many Michelin stars did it take for your mother to come around? "It took three stars for The French Laundry [in California]. There was an article [about me] in Chosun Ilbo, a large Korean newspaper. That's when she thought I was a real professional."
Describe your cuisine at Benu. "It's very specific to San Francisco in many ways. Obviously with the tangible stuff - local ingredients, mainly produce. I think it's a cuisine that's part of San Francisco and being in the Bay Area on a much more cultural level. I moved to northern California in November 2001 to work at The French Laundry, and what struck me is that there's this very large Asian population in northern California, and, in San Francisco specifically, there's a huge Chinese population. There's a large Chinese population in New York, where I was coming from, but in northern California it felt really different; it felt like the population was much more assimilated and there was this kind of cross harmony between the Asian population and the Western population. That's something unique to San Francisco. Over the years, that led me to be very curious, especially about Cantonese cuisine and also the cuisine in Hong Kong. I think there are three influences in our cooking: there's the Western or French background - I studied that and went the very traditional [culinary] route - there's the Korean cuisine that's very much rooted in me, and there's the Chinese influence, which is a more academic approach. I realised it's a very big part of the area and I wanted to learn about it."
So, you make your own century eggs? "It's century quail egg - I've never seen that before. It's very rare because they're very temperamental. The shell is much thinner than a duck egg, obviously. It's not the peeling that's difficult, it's the ageing process. The pH level during the ageing process is high and often what happens is the quail egg shell shatters because it can't withhold the pH level. That's why it's not made often, and why duck eggs are usually used."
Ten years ago, all the up-and-coming chefs were going to El Bulli, in Spain, and now it's Noma and other restaurants in Scandinavia. What's going to be the next big restaurant? "There are a lot of movements in cuisine and El Bulli and Noma [have spurred] cooks to go to a certain area to learn a culture, a style of cooking, techniques. I think the next one is going to be about flavour. It's going to happen not in a restaurant but probably in journals, in writing, where people start to develop a language talking about flavour. It's going to happen in labs and experiments. We're so far from a universal understanding of flavour and so far from a language that talks about flavour. Everyone lives in their own bubble: how something tastes to you is very different from how it tastes to me. In the next 10 years, they're going to come up with a language to quantify those things. Right now, you can say, 'This tastes like tomato', and I'll say, 'It tastes a little like tomato but I can also taste fennel.' I think we're going to come to a point where we can actually measure how much tomato is in this taste and how much fennel is in it: 'That's tomato No4 or tomato No5'. How do you talk about it so we're on the same page? You have to quantify it in a very scientific process. There's an enormous amount of research going into this. They can actually measure flavour and recreate it. You and I can taste a piece of osso buco and we'll say it's meaty, it's umami, it's fatty … whatever. But then we'll be able to say it's 5 per cent this, 10 per cent that, and actually measure [the flavours]. And that's very exciting. It's exciting and scary."
Is that going to make food too scientific? "Ultimately, it will be a good thing for food, for development, for making the process of enjoying delicious food more democratic. The lowest common denominator for food will improve. Chefs will be forced to do things that are even more interesting, because the code of flavour has been cracked, so to speak. The scary thing is that you can synthesise that - you can make something that's not wholesome taste good."