My favorite interview of 2012 was a long conversation with Chef Corey Lee, of Benu in San Francisco. Here, in Part 1 of the interview, he talks about his start in the business and the extraordinary experience of working for Chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and Per Se...
How did you start cooking?
I was 17 years old and I’d just finished high school. I decided to wait a while before going to college. I needed a job, so I started working at Blue Ribbon Sushi – but I actually started cooking down the street at its sister restaurant, Blue Ribbon.
Did you ever end up going to college?
No, once I started I was in!
No culinary school either?
What sucked you in about cooking and the restaurant life?
First of all, it was a physical job that required a certain amount of stamina and dexterity, which I enjoy. On the flipside, it was also something that required a certain degree of creativity – and there was a cerebral element. I found that combination very rewarding and very challenging.
A kitchen is a place where a strong work ethic is rewarded. There’s really no politicking involved in how people move up. It’s a very fair playing field.
The Bromberg brothers at Blue Ribbon took an interest in me because I was so young. They encouraged me to go to abroad. They had both worked in France and really valued their experience. So in 1997, I went to England, which was going through a huge restaurant renaissance. Michelin-starred restaurants were opening everywhere! To be a young cook in that setting was very exciting.
How’d it go in England?
We used to work from 8 am to 12 at night, six days a week, with barely a break, in very intense, very competitive kitchens. Had I been more experienced when I went, I probably wouldn’t have made it though that time. Being young, with nothing to compare it to – I just thought, “That’s what you do in the world of fine dining.”
When you say “competitive,” what do you mean?
Going for that high position. It’s a very cutthroat environment.
So cooking is not political, but it can be cutthroat?
It’s definitely competitive in some kitchens. The place that I experienced that the most was in London.
How long were you there?
About a year and a half, with some stages and some staff positions. The great thing about being in a city like that, there’s opportunity to see a lot in a short period of time. When I wasn’t working, I would stage and make the most of it.
What were the two most significant places you cooked in London?
Pied à Terre and the Savoy. The Savoy was amazing, because it has so much history – it’s where Escoffier made his name. Coming from this small restaurant in downtown New York without any culinary experience, really, walking into this great hotel kitchen – it was like a whirlwind! Floors and floors just of kitchens; a floor just for pastry production. I couldn’t even imagine anything like that! To walk into that was amazing!
How did you walk into these places and get them to take you on?
I went there and submitted unsolicited resumes and just called them. When I went over there, I had no idea about Michelin. I look back on that and it was really my inexperience and my naïveté that gave me the courage to just walk in and ask to stage or work there.
So if you would have been better informed, you would have been more intimidated.
Exactly! I had a year and a half of experience in this tiny little bistro in New York that no one had ever heard of – and to go into these grand kitchens and to ask to work there just doesn’t make sense. But I did it because I didn’t know any better!
When I got to London, I looked at a lot of different guides to try and find out what the great restaurants were. Luckily the Savoy is where I first went, and they have such a huge kitchen, they’re always looking for staff. People from all around the world work there. Meeting the cooks at the Savoy helped me stage the next two places I went to when I was in England.
How long were you in England?
A year and a half, then I came back to New York and worked at Normand Laprise’s (of Le Troquet, Montreal) restaurant, Cena. It was a very young chef, opening a very exciting restaurant in New York. It was an exciting time, but I didn’t stay there very long.
When I was young, I used to stage and try out at places all the time. If I worked five days a week, I was staging the other two days. One of the places I staged was Lespinasse. They offered me a job and it was a great opportunity.
So you got the job by staging when you were already working somewhere else?
That’s pretty intense. Do a lot of cooks do that?
The generation I come from did it a lot more. In those days, if I wanted to experience Le Bernadin, I had to go volunteer my time. Now Eric Ripert has a TV show, books, a website with videos! The opportunities to experience someone else’s cuisine are endless!
So how was Lespinasse?
It was a very, very classic restaurant. I was working for Christian Delouvrier, and I stayed there for two years – the longest I’d ever worked anywhere. It was a great, great experience. I was the youngest person in that kitchen by 10 years. It was a huge part of my career, working at a 4-star restaurant in New York, at a high-profile, big hotel. Being able to work all the stations was a great part of my experience there.
I went to France to stage, then went back to New York. It was June of 2001, and there was an article in the New York Times with Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] talking about plans to open the Time-Warner Center. That really struck me and I knew I wanted to be a part of that project.
What did you do?
I reached out to Thomas Keller, and he invited me to come try out. So I flew to California and he said, “You can be part of the opening at Per Se, but you should train here first.” So I went out to California and started on November 19th, 2001.
That date is etched in your mind!
[LAUGHS] Yeah, I’m not sure why, but it kinda sticks with me.
What were your expectations, and how did working at The French Laundry compare?
I had a lot of expectations, and they were exceeded in many ways I never could have imagined. I worked for Thomas for almost 9 years. I wouldn’t have done that if the experience wasn’t so special and so rewarding.
The first thing that struck me was how centered, how human and how connected Thomas is – and how much he’s in touch with the staff and every part of the restaurant. Not just the food going in and out, but the shelf in the corner with the dry storage. The light bulb on top of the mop sink. He knew that place inside and out. The opportunities that he offered to his staff and the generosity with which he approached running that restaurant was really amazing.
Sounds like an extraordinary place to work.
It’s a very special place, and I think Thomas is a very special chef. Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time with him – I can’t imagine them saying anything different, because he’s so true to who he is.
What did he see in you?
Originally, it was that I’d worked in New York and he was opening a New York restaurant. They needed people who knew the players, the market, the cooks. Once we got to know each other, we learned we share a lot of similar viewpoints and we have similar priorities.
Attention to detail is something we have in common. We’re both workaholics. He knew I was very ambitious about what I wanted to achieve within his restaurants. I really treated that restaurant like it was my restaurant and took ownership of it. When you’re someone like Thomas, that’s an important thing.
Did you do that at other places you worked?
I always did as much as I could within my position and often went beyond my specific responsibilities. At Lespinasse – it was a union hotel, so labor was a big issue – I used to sneak in when it was closed and do prep, because I knew it had to be done. If anyone would have known, I probably would have gotten in trouble!
Is that advice you’d give to young chefs?
You have to start preparing to own a restaurant as soon as you can, if you ever want to do it. It’s never too early to take the mentality of an owner.
You did go back to New York to help open Per Se, right?
Yes, I worked there 16 months.
I’ve read Service Included, the book Phoebe Damrosch wrote about the opening.
Phoebe was a good example of the kind of commitment and energy that was imbedded in the opening team. There was just something about having this significant opening, in a city like New York, with everyone watching you, expectations through the roof, and everyone comes to work committed to making it the best restaurant they can and totally buying into the culture.
In the book, Phoebe portrayed you as really fierce. True?
I’m very focused at work. It’s an intense work environment. You have to approach it with a tremendous amount of concentration. You have to invest an enormous amount of energy and emotion into your work and be successful. When you invest a lot of energy and emotion into anything, you become connected to it at a different level. Whenever you mix emotion with high pressure and intensity, it makes it even more intense! That’s part of the environment at any fine-dining restaurant where there are enormous expectations and costs are very high. These are special occasion restaurants, so each diner is very meaningful. They come on a special day that they need to celebrate and you don’t want to let them down.
It was pretty clear that you scared the hell out of Phoebe!
[LAUGHS] That certainly wasn’t my intention! The people who opened Per Se, who had experience working at French Laundry [Damrosch didn’t] and who knew Thomas well, felt even a greater responsibility than the others. We needed to inoculate that restaurant with the culture of French Laundry, and we took that responsibility very seriously. That kind of intensity and concentration is part of Thomas’ success. And it was important to bring that intensity to the new restaurant. It’s not about instilling fear, it’s about making sure everyone understands that it’s a group of professionals who make all kinds of sacrifices to be there, and you should take that very seriously.
When did you decide that you wanted to own your own place?
When I first start working, I thought for sure I would own a restaurant one day, because I really didn’t know what was involved! It’s easy to want something when you don’t know how much work is involved. Then, as I got more experience, especially when I worked for Thomas, I realized it’s amazing to have an owner who supports you, where you can really focus on the food and being a chef.
So what changed?
As I evolved stylistically, I realized, if I ever want to offer something unique, with a personal point of view, ownership was an important part of that. That idea was the catalyst for me leaving the French Laundry.
As a young chef working for Thomas Keller, how did you develop a style of your own? It seems like it would be very easy to stay in the Thomas Keller groove – you could perfect that your entire life.
My biggest responsibility was trying to balance those two things. He requires you to develop your own style. He encourages that all the way down to chef de partie level. The menu changes every day, so everyone has a tremendous opportunity to try something, to make an impact, to do something different.
There’s no point in running a restaurant like that unless it constantly changes. My biggest responsibility as the chef there, I felt, was to make sure the restaurant kept evolving and moving forward – in a way that was still within Thomas’ style and what people associate with the French Laundry. That’s a tough thing to balance.
Did you have in your head what you wanted to do at Benu while you were still at French Laundry?
A lot of it, toward the end. There were dishes I would think about and realize, “You know, this isn’t right for the French Laundry.” Or there were some ingredients I was inspired by and wanted to use, and I realized they weren’t right.
So where do you draw the line?
That’s a tough thing to answer, because those lines are really undefined. When it comes to innovation at the French Laundry you have to approach it like, “Is this something Thomas would evolve to?” The fact that he’s an American-born chef, the history of the French Laundry, its place in Napa valley, knowing all the chefs who have passed through there, is an important part of understanding what those lines are.
Was it an easy decision to leave?
No, it wasn’t. I started at 23 and I left at 31 – I spent most of my 20s there. Thomas was, and continues to be, a great friend, and so many of the important things in my life happened to me while I was working in his restaurant.
It seems like it was more of a family than a job.
Yeah, absolutely. There’s a connection to the people, the space, the building, the food. It becomes very personal.
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