By Michelle Konstantinovsky
Admiring the creative display on the plate (and this page), you might be tempted to call its mastermind an artist—but he’d disagree with you. “I think there are definitely artistic aspects to cooking,” says Corey Lee, the James Beard Award-winning chef of Benu and In Situ. “But ultimately, I see cooking as a craft that has a physical, nourishing function beyond art.”
Even if Lee considers his creations distinct from non-gastronomic versions of art, the chef is known around town for dreaming up dishes that are as visually stunning as they are delectable. And while he doesn’t label himself an artist, he does acknowledge the artistry inherent in his work. “I usually start by identifying the components of a dish and for the most part, let each part present itself naturally,” he says.
The Sea of Okhotsk sea cucumber, stuffed with lobster and glazed in fermented pepper sauce, is Lee’s take on a sought-after Asian delicacy which Americans are unlikely to find outside of ethnic restaurants. “The shape and look of a sea cucumber is naturally a bit provocative, so the visual aspect certainly plays a role in the eating experience,” Lee says. The food’s exotic element further fueled Lee’s stylistic choices. “I thought this dish shared some of the qualities you’d seek from certain artistic encounters. The opportunity to experience something new or different—perhaps from another culture—combined with an emphasis on aesthetics and design.”
Citing local chefs Massimo Bottura and Albert Adrià as two artistic visionaries from Italy and Spain, respectively, Lee believes his headquarters of San Francisco is another special venue for culinary creativity. “We’re incredibly fortunate to have a city full of people interested in restaurants and food,” he says. “We’re lucky as diners to live in a time where there are endless options for restaurants serving food that is not only delicious, but also visually engaging, educational and inspiring.”