TORONTO — It’s not often that a Michelin-star rated chef interviews another Michelin-star rated chef in front of a live audience, but, for Momofuku’s David Chang, the chance to interview Corey Lee — one of his favourite chefs, and one of the U.S.’s most renowned toques — was too good an opportunity to pass up. Last night, the two culinary greats came together before a live audience of food aficionados, media and culinary students from George Brown College (GBC) as part of the school’s “In Conversation” series.
Lee was in town to promote his first cookbook, featuring recipes from his award-winning San Francisco restaurant Benu, an eatery that’s garnered three Michelin stars. Interestingly, the cookbook is presented in the format of a 33-course tasting menu.
The renowned perfectionist boasts an impressive résumé, having worked with some of the industry’s greats, including Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, who he describes as his first true mentor. “Keller was interested in me beyond the restaurant,” says Lee, who worked with the toque for almost a decade before launching his own restaurant.
Like many chefs, Lee entered the restaurant industry almost by accident. “I thought if you worked hard, you’d get ahead.” He soon realized that time goes by so fast in the kitchen, and it’s an exciting place to work. Still, his parents were never enamored with the idea of their son working in the restaurant industry. “I’ve been working in restaurants 20 years, and my parents never want to come to my restaurants,” he quipped to chuckles from the crowd. In fact, when he told them he was thinking of being a chef, they responded by saying, “Hell no!.”
Nonetheless, after years of helming kitchens, experience has given Lee confidence to take more risks. “It allowed me to focus on creativity,” the Benu chef said, adding that he draws inspiration from his Korean background and more. “What inspires me has changed. Earlier, it was more literal things like ingredients; today I’m inspired by less tangible things — the spirit of an area, architecture.”
While Lee was influenced by French cuisine and admits it still rules many kitchens, because “it’s documented and has a structure,” he says the industry is going through a transitional period. He noted that travel is influencing cooks to fuse various cultures to create their own unique offering. “Chefs all over the world are focused more on locality. The world is smaller, we speak the same language. When we start incorporating tastes from around the world, we start the dialogue,” Lee said.
The interview was one part of Lee’s Canadian experience. Earlier this week, he attended a dinner at the Chef’s House, where GBC culinary students interpreted and prepared a four-course menu in his honour.