Diners at Benu, the widely celebrated fine-dining restaurant in San Francisco, are confronted with a polarizing first course: half of a preserved quail egg, in which the firm “white” is actually translucent brown, and the pudding-like yolk is a greenish-black. It's Benu's take on the thousand-year-old egg—for millions of people across Asia, a classic comfort food.
Talking Comfort Food With Benu Chef Corey Lee
THE FINE-DINING CHEF SAYS TASTES HAVE NEVER BEEN MORE GLOBAL
“For any food that comes from a particular culture, so much of what determines if it’s comforting or not is your experience and reference point for that dish,” says Corey Lee, Benu’s chef.
Even people who are familiar with the egg’s intense smell of ammonia—which Lee’s Benu cookbook promises gives way to a “deep savoriness” when eaten— are given a new experience by the fact that it’s made from a quail egg.
Our collective sense of comfort food has quickly evolved in recent years. “At no other point in history has our sense of comfort been more global than it is today,” says Lee, whose restaurant has the highest possible Michelin ranking—3 stars.
Comfort foods are redefining fine dining, a departure from the more traditional model that relies on the chef ’s purchasing power and ability to gather the most luxurious ingredients, Lee suggests.
“It’s being able to enjoy something you’ve had before but in a new context, and that makes you feel appreciation for your own culture’s cuisine or the flavors you grew up with,” he says. “There’s a lot of value in that.”
RICE AND VEGETABLE DISHES
Lee, 40, who grew up with Korean food, finds comfort in rice and intensely flavored preserved vegetables. “That’s the basis of Korean cuisine,” he says. “You spend a lot of time making a batch of kimchi, or fermenting vegetables. At mealtime, you serve a big bowl of rice, and then you have a huge spread of different dishes.”
The chef says that he appreciates all the different ways of enjoying rice, including Chinese-style fried rice, congee (a type of rice porridge popular in East Asian countries), and Italian-style risotto.
Guests at Benu have said the marinated mussels stuffed with noodles are quite comforting. Served without the shells, the mussels make for a visually striking presentation, with stripes made from egg whites, carrots, cucumbers, and braised kombu seaweed.
“You’re experiencing something you’ve had a thousand times, in the simplest, most humble way, but in a way that you don’t associate with a gastronomic experience,” Lee says.