On this week’s WORD OF MOUTH with Leiti Hsu, we’re joined by Corey Lee, chef owner of 3-Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurants, Benu and Monsieur Benjamin. The James Beard Award winner shares the story about the moment being Michelin-starred sunk in, and how he was shaped by working with his mentor, the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. Corey also tells us about when his dream of being a professional tennis player fell apart, but how that experience playing sports shaped his approach to cooking. Plus, we talk pottery, porridge, and our love of sea cucumbers.
At the top of the show, we head to the Greenmarket with chef Exotic Table author Aliya Leekong to take a look at the spring’s first ramps and talk about the love of garlic. And then to #WINEDOWN, we’re joined (from Italy!) by Mauro di Maggio of Cantine San Marzano winery in Puglia, who tells us about his region’s wine-growing rise and his favorite local grapes.
On realizing what it meant to be Michelin-starred
[23:00] – “It really sank in when I gathered all the staff in the kitchen and I let them know. Seeing their reactions actually made it that much more emotional for me, seeing the look on their faces and knowing that they all felt they were so much a part of it.”
On Benu’s culture his Asian American culture
[26:00] – “I remember when I was young I would go to a friend’s house or something and their parent would be like â€˜Hey, where are you from?’ and I’d be like â€˜Huh, where am I from?’ I feel the same about when people ask me what kind of restaurant Benu is. It represents San Francisco culturally but ultimately its part of this American cuisine that’s open to different cultures and is constantly changing.”
On moving to the US
[29:00] – “I came here when I was five years old and that was an interesting age because you’re young enough where you’re going to embrace your surroundings as your own but you’re old enough that you have some memory of your native culture.”
On working with Thomas Keller
[36:00] – “I spent my twenties and became and adult in an environment that he cultivated. He was my true mentor. Our relationship changed over the years – it started as chef and cook and then it went to chef owner and his chef de cusine, and then it became great friends and now golfing buddies.”
On his professional tennis dream
[37:00] – “When I was younger my dream was to be a professional tennis player. I played competitively and traveled around the country but found out about the age of 12 that short Asian guys can’t really be pro tennis players. So that’s when I gave up on my athletic aspirations. But there’s something about competing and doing something that tested your limits that I really liked, and there was a sense of camaraderie in team sports, pushing each other to excel, and I think I find both those things as a chef.”
–Corey Lee on WORD OF MOUTH