The Journal travels to San Francisco to meet Korean-American chef Corey Lee in his 3-Michelin-star restaurant Benu. Find out why dining at his establishment isn’t just a meal but an experience and how Lee infuses his rich culture in every meal. We also discover this popular culinary artist’s connection with the IWC Portugieser collection.
Born in Seoul and raised in New York City, Chef Corey Lee opened his 3-Michelin-star restaurant Benu in 2010. The tasting menu experience, neatly tucked away aside the Yerba Buena Gardens, is a refined, but welcoming oasis in San Francisco. At Benu, each dish, inspired by Lee’s heritage and training in high-end kitchens, is developed with creativity, made with precision and timed to perfection. Yet, Lee and his dedicated staff have created an environment where guests find supremely thoughtful, hospitable service — a level of warmth not always expected in fine dining.
How did you get started as a chef and what drew you to the profession?
Most of my training has been in fine dining French restaurants in Europe and New York. Prior to opening Benu, my last post was as chef de cuisine at The French Laundry in Napa, California. When I first started in restaurants, I just took a summer job as a teenager with no ambitions to be a chef. At the time, I hadn’t even considered a career in restaurants. But from day one, I was drawn to the unique energy of the kitchen and the varied skills that the chefs had.
How does your heritage as a Korean-American influence your cooking and the presentation in your dishes? How do your surroundings in California influence them?
It’s impossible to separate my style of cooking or my perspective on food from my Korean-American upbringing. I also think that anyone who grew up biculturally is acutely aware of how closely food is linked to identity. So, I was positioned from a young age to appreciate the power of cuisine and food traditions. Even the most refined traditional Korean cooking is more modest and rustic than that of its neighboring Japanese and Chinese counterparts. But its strength is in its soulfulness, deliciousness, and its reflection of cultural identity. I think those qualities come across in our cooking.
California is the breadbasket of America and access to exceptional product is obviously a great asset to a chef. California is also associated with being a frontier and possessing a sense of forward-thinking. That’s where I find my biggest connection.
Why do you choose to create a tasting menu experience at Benu?
Benu is a unique restaurant in that our diners come here not just to be satiated and have tasty food but also to have a singular experience. Choosing the menu for our guests and enabling them to enjoy a variety of ingredients, compositions, and flavors helps us deliver that. In a situation where diners choose items from an a la carte menu, their choices themselves can drastically change their own experience.
What kind of experience do you want to produce with the very polished menu and atmosphere of Benu?
Even though our menu and dining room can be perceived as polished, guests are often surprised to find that our menu is full of bold flavors and humble ingredients. And rather than formal, our service is actually very warm and friendly. The feeling of refinement and polish guests might sense in our restaurant is more a byproduct of the craft behind wanting to provide an exceptional meal instead of us aiming to offer something opulent.
Everything about the experience at your restaurant is meticulous. Can you tell us about your commitment to precision in your dishes?
There is definitely a palpable sense of precision throughout our kitchen and dining room. Our staff works incredibly hard to be consistent. This rigor is not clinical or impersonal but comes from a desire to please and share.
Your staff is similarly committed to excellence. How do you inspire in your staff such dedication and loyalty to the overall mission and experience of Benu?
My job is to provide them with a platform for learning, working with great products, cooking for engaged diners, and interacting with passionate professionals. We try to identify and invest in staff that are self-motivated and can find meaning and value in excelling in this kind of environment.
Where do you find inspiration for your dishes?
Earlier in my career, inspiration mostly came from discovering new ingredients, having great dining experiences, and meeting prominent chefs – things directly related to food or cooking. Now, I feel that inspiration can come from anywhere, including other disciplines. There are things that inspire me on a human level, and because I happen to be a chef, that inspiration is applied to food. The inspiration itself doesn’t have to be food-related.
What draws you to wear a timepiece?
I’ve always worn a watch because timing is such a critical component of working in a precise kitchen. There is a practical need, but I’ve always been drawn to how craftsmanship, design, and ingenuity come together to produce a quality timepiece.
What motivated you to purchase your own IWC Portugieser Chronograph?
I like the timelessness of the IWC Portugieser Chronograph. It feels like something that can be worn across generations and seems stylish without being trendy.
Authorized Bay Area California IWC retailers
- CH Premier (San Jose)
2855 Stevens Creek Boulevard
Valley Fair Mall, Suite 1251
Santa Clara, CA 95050
- Davidson & Licht (Walnut Creek)
1329 North Main Street
Walnut Creek, CA 94596
- Shreve & Co (San Francisco)
117 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 9410
- Shreve & Co (Palo Alto)
329 Stanford Shopping Center
Palo Alto, CA 94304
- Tourneau (San Francisco)
845 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Chef Corey Lee In The Kitchen
Lee wears the IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar (IW503401)
Browse our timepieces
Selected for you
Perfect, Perpetual and Portugieser
Michael Friedberg explains the history of the Portugieser Perpetual Calendar and why it’s known as the perfect watch.
How to handle your IWC complication watch
In our second "How to" series, Justin Hast delves into IWC watch complications. Find out how to set and adjust your timepiece here.
Cruising in the Copper State
IWC follows a group of car lovers during the Mercedes 300 SL Classic Rally in Arizona. Read about this four-day adventure through the American West here.