Behind Every Entrepreneur is a Powerful Mentor: Corey Lee's Story

By Jayvee Gulmatico, Managing Director, First Republic Bank
February 23, 2016

This spring, Entrepreneur and Restaurateur Corey Lee will be pursuing one of his most ambitious projects ever: In Situ, a new restaurant based within San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art.

In Situ’s menu features dishes from chefs and restaurants around the world that have helped shape our ideas about and relationships with food. Corey traveled the world to meet and learn from these chefs, and for those he could not meet in person, he received video recordings or detailed instructions of the individual’s work. At In Situ, Corey will execute these dishes exactly as he learned them, weighing ingredients by the gram.

As of Fall 2015, he has collected recipes from more than 80 chefs — and his goal of promoting inclusivity and community has San Francisco foodies excited.

"If you spend enough time working hard in your industry before becoming an entrepreneur, great mentors reveal themselves naturally."

Before work began on In Situ, he earned one of the most coveted restaurant distinctions in the world (three Michelin stars) and has been hailed as one of the best chefs on earth.

It’s hard to imagine that he fell into the world of entrepreneurship “accidentally” — in his own words.

“As a teenager, I just needed a job and ended up working at a restaurant,” he explains. “Becoming an entrepreneur later in my career was somewhat unplanned as well. So much of my interest in being a chef relates to having a great amount of creative freedom. I realized having a business of my own is a part of that.”

His tenacity, curiosity and relentless independence have been critical to his success. Corey is self-taught, and as the article puts it, “his cooking is his own.”

But he didn’t get to where he is today alone and unguided; it was through the help and support of a key mentor. We sat down with Corey to explore how mentorship has impacted his career.

How has mentorship played a role in your growth trajectory? What were some of your biggest challenges starting and then expanding your restaurant business? How did your mentor provide guidance?

Corey: I feel that the kitchen is place where the mentor-mentee dynamic is so critical. My ability to progress as a chef, or even start a real career in this industry, was due to having good mentors along the way.

You put in a lot of hours as a chef, but it doesn’t necessarily hone the skills required to start and run a small business. Fortunately, I had a mentor who not only trusted me with additional responsibilities, but also knew that these were skills I would need later in my career. He allowed me to participate in more business-related aspects rather than just cooking-related.


You worked under world-renown Chef and Restaurateur Thomas Keller at The French Laundry for nearly a decade — can you describe how his mentorship helped you grow as a chef and entrepreneur?

Corey: I think that the timing of my years working for Thomas Keller couldn’t have been better. I started when he was the chef in the kitchen every night, and left when he was the CEO of a large restaurant group. It was extremely educational for me to watch him make that transition while staying true to his core values.

The most important lessons that I learned:

  1. Skilled and motivated people on your team are the most valuable assets you can have as a chef. Thomas recognized everyone as individuals and cared enough to discover each person’s strengths. He then made that information beneficial for the entire team and restaurant.
  2. Maintain composure during adversity. Even when circumstances are extremely stressful, it’s important to set a calm tone for the entire team. They look to you for guidance, and your composure will instill confidence in others. Just five days after Per Se opened, there was a fire in the kitchen that shut down the restaurant for two months. Thomas’ leadership and poise were crucial to a successful reopening.
  3. He also taught me about letting go of certain responsibilities — trusting people to do them as well as you and refraining from micromanaging them. I think it’s very hard to give up tasks you’re used to doing or you’re good at. From writing the next day’s menus to running the kitchen during service, delegation is crucial to growth.

What piece of advice have you received that has helped you as a restauranteur?

Corey: I received some advice from our first CPA, who helped me put together the financial plans for Benu’s opening, and it stayed with me — don't be cheap; don’t sweat the small things.

This was in 2008-2009, in the midst of the recession. Because I was a young chef opening a small business for the first time, there was naturally a lot of stress and anxiety. This advice helped me put things in perspective, look at the big picture and focus on what I’ve been trained to do my whole career.

How have you distinguished good advice from bad advice? What are some signs of an ‘ideal’ mentor?

Corey: In addition to the advice itself, focus on who’s giving it. While good advice doesn’t necessarily come from people who are successful or more experienced, the chances are that if you respect and look up to them, then their advice is good.

I think that if you spend enough time working hard in your industry before becoming an entrepreneur, great mentors reveal themselves naturally. It’s also important that there’s a relationship outside of just the mentor-mentee aspect. Whether the relationship is that of an employer/employee, a family member or a business partner, it's helpful when there’s some part of the relationship that requires you to stay connected and interact on a regular basis.

Now let’s turn the tables a bit. Can you tell me about some of the students you’re mentoring, and why? What traits do you see shine?

Corey: Benu’s current Executive Chef, Brandon Rodgers, began as an opening Sous Chef and then became our Chef de Cuisine. He has always been great at completing his own tasks and taking responsibility for what he is assigned. As he’s grown within the restaurant and company, he has developed a greater understanding and sense of responsibility for work beyond his own — the work of the team as a whole.

There’s a moment when someone who has worked in a kitchen for many years, starts to think about the restaurant differently — more holistically rather than solely related to his or her job. That transition is the first real step to becoming an entrepreneur in the restaurant industry, and it’s very rewarding if you can help young chefs take that step.

When Chef Jason Berthold came on board to spearhead the opening of Monsieur Benjamin, he was already an accomplished chef with a great amount of experience. He came in with a strong vision and a desire to be a strong leader. By recognizing that strong leadership is also the ability to collaborate with the talent that surrounds you, he flourished and became a better chef for it.


©First Republic Bank, 2016