French Laundry Alumnus Breaks Out with Benu
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.
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 did you walk into London’s Pied à Terre and the Savoy 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!
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.
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.
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.
Why did you take the direction you did with Benu?
When I first looked at the space, it was the day that Lehman Brothers went under, so it was probably the absolute worst time that a young chef could go out and try to raise money and open a restaurant.
Some chefs have told me they really like how a tasting menu lets them control the dining experience. Would you rather serve a tasting menu than a la carte?
Absolutely! There’s no question about that! When you have control of the entire menu, you can control the tasting, the portion size, the flavor combinations, the kind of dishes because you can offer a dish based on one or two flavors or one texture and it doesn’t have to be balanced in the way an a la carte dish does. It’s not about each dish having that balance, it’s about the sum of those dishes being balanced. When people order off the a la carte menu, it becomes difficult to control their experience.
I’m hearing the word “control” a lot.
Control is a huge part of any sensory experience, and dining is the ultimate sensory experience because you consume the things that you see and smell. If people are fast-forwarding and skipping around a movie, it’s a different experience than seeing a movie from start to finish. You need to control the sequence of the way that movie unfolds. Dining is similar. If you can control there’s that word again! - the sequence and the portion size and the timing, it is a very different experience.
When you’re cooking for people, what’s the reaction you want?
There are different priorities. First and foremost, that the food is wholesome. good-quality, nourishing food. That’s the most basic thing about eating anything, right? After that, it’s about tasting good. After that, if you’re interested, there are other layers to be found, whether it’s conceptual dishes, dishes that are humorous, nostalgic, surprising. Sometimes it’s all about design, sometimes it’s a single texture. There are all the other layers to be found if you’re interested.
I know you do get a lot of inspiration from your Korean background. Anyplace else you look to for inspiration?
Some of the dishes on the tasting menu are meant to be something very historical or even retro. Right now we have a cold chicken on the menu, marinated with jasmine tea and served with dates. We serve that in a kind of antique-looking goblet or chase. It’s a very, very old, traditional preparation in countries all over Asia. And we sprinkle it with a little gold leaf, because gold leaf is very retro. A dish like that is nostalgic, and it reminds you of the history and sometimes you can hear music that does the same thing, puts you in a certain period of history in the same way. A period in life that’s so personal, it’s possible to convey that to your diners, when music evokes certain parts of history that’s more universal. The same thing is true of food. You can offer emotions or experiences like that.
Do you have a lot of discussion with your team when you’re creating a dish?
It depends on the dish. Some require an enormous amount of discussion not only with the people on our team, but outside our team. Some require very specific serving pieces, with custom-made porcelain or wood or different kinds of polymers. Some things kind of happen naturally and it’s quick and we run it that day. But there are dishes that we’ve spent over a year working on.
Do you have what you’d consider to be a “signature dish?”
One thing would be the 1,000-year old quail egg. Everyone who has a tasting menu starts with that. It’s a symbol of the tasting menu. A small sample of, stylistically, what we’re doing on the tasting menu.
Why is it a symbol?
It’s based on something that is very traditional, a century egg. So there’s history there. Some chefs want to create a cuisine without reference points. I find reference points very important. They add value to something and have potential to make a greater impact on your guests. It’s a very historical preparation, yet we’re approaching it from the point of view of a modern chef. We’re not making that in the traditional method, we’re making it in a more efficient method that has more control, and that’s what modern cooking is about technique and being able to be more exacting and making a better product.
What are you proudest of in this point in your career?
That’s tough. When it comes to being proud about something or thinking about success, it’s always very fleeting. Even though opening a restaurant was my goal for such a long time and that goal was accomplished, the second you get there, there’s a whole new definition of what success is. Success is always something you look back on or you look forward to, but in the moment, I don’t think you really feel success or pride.
Your parents are living in Korea. Have they visited and eaten at Benu?
Yes, it’s the first restaurant that I’ve ever worked at where they’ve dined.
My mom didn’t like the idea of enjoying a meal and having fun while one of her children was in the back working away. But since this is my first restaurant, they came and they were really happy to experience it.
What is your 5-year goal?
I’d love to be able to look at the restaurant and know it’s a sustainable business, to know that I’ve paid back my partners and recouped their investment, to see some of the staff who’ve gone through here open restaurants significant restaurants of their own. That’s a real marker of the quality of your restaurant if your staff can go out and do something special.
What’s your “last meal?”
A full, multi-course Korean dinner. Shinsollo (a royal hotpot-type dish with a special serving piece), tons of little side-dishes, a rice course, rice cakes, that full progression of a fine-dining Korean meal.
Then: The French Laundry (Napa); Per Se (NYC); Lespinasse (NYC); stages in France; The Savoy (London); Blue Ribbon (NYC)
Kudos: 2011 James Beard Foundation “Best New Restaurant” nominee; Condé Nast Traveler’s “Hot List 2011”; New York Times “10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride”; San Francisco Chronicle, 3.5 stars; 2006 James Beard Foundation “Rising Star Chef” award
Mentors: Thomas Keller, Christian Delouvrier
Limelight: Official Goodwill Ambassador for Seoul, Korea
Pubs: Under Pressure, co-authored with Thomas Keller
Favorite restaurants: Coi (San Francisco),
Manresa (Los Gatos, CA), Koi Palace (Daly City, CA), Urasawa (Beverly Hills, CA), Peter Luger (Brooklyn, NY)
Grew up: Born in Seoul, Korea; moved to New York at age 5