Client Conversation: Corey Lee

First Republic Bank

Corey Lee
Client since, '09
Chef and Owner, Benu, 3 Stars, The Michelin Guide
James Beard Award-winner; has worked at seven 3 Star Michelin restaurants in England, France and the US.

How did you start down your career path?

I was right out of high school in New York and I needed a job. A friend of mine was working at the restaurant, Blue Ribbon, which is a very popular place amongst the industry. I gravitated toward the kitchen because it was a unique environment that I hadn’t experienced before - a blend of physical endurance and dexterity as well as a very creative and cerebral element. It was the combination of those components that really drew me in. Eventually, the owners encouraged me to leave the restaurant and go to Europe for experience, which is exactly what I did. I worked there for a couple of years and took my first step into fine dining.

If you weren't a chef what would you be?

Probably something involving design. Not design that you admire from afar as an object, but things that you interact with on a daily basis, like furniture or clothing- design that makes everyday life more interesting and beautiful is something that I think about all the time. Food is the most intimate and personal expression of that idea because you actually consume it.

Who was your mentor growing up?

Growing up, I don’t know that I actually had a true mentor. The first mentor I had when I look back is Thomas Keller when I was at French Laundry. I think you meet people along the way that train you, influence you, inspire you, and help you attain your goals but they aren’t necessarily mentors. Mentors have a broader scope in how they impact your life, and I think that impact needs to be intended. Thomas is the only person who did that for me.

How do you think he shaped you as a chef?

I started when it was just French Laundry. To see how Thomas was able to transition from being the chef of one kitchen in one restaurant to being an entrepreneur and running a company with hundreds of employees was incredibly eye-opening. Up to that point, a really great chef to me was someone who spent all of their time in the kitchen focusing only on the food. He was the first one to teach me that there is much more to being a chef than being a great cook.

What is your favorite app?

Shanghai Mahjong

If you could write a letter today to the person you were 10 years ago, what advice would you give?

I would say to not set too many deadlines for myself. When I was younger, I would tell myself that when I’m at a certain age I needed to have accomplished this and that. Now looking back, I don’t even remember when I accomplished these goals. I think the race is really just with yourself and it’s more important to enjoy the time and maximize your present experience rather than thinking about the next step all of the time. I think there needs to be a good balance between moving forward and not forgetting the moment that you’re in.

Where is your favorite vacation or destination spot?

There are five places I can go over and over again: Hong Kong, Seoul, Kyoto, New York and Paris.

What is your favorite book, newspaper, magazine or business journal you absolutely have to read?

Wallpaper – a lifestyle magazine out of England that covers everything – food, design, fashion. It highlights new and interesting things with an innovative twist from glasses to phones.

What do you keep in your pocket or briefcase that you can't live without?

A Moleskine notebook.

Who is the diner you've been the most nervous or excited to serve?

In every restaurant I’ve worked, whether it was a famous chef or celebrity that was coming in, we ran around and made different menus for them. It always bothered me that we spent so much time focusing on a small percentage of our guests. At Benu, I wanted us to have to operate on the premise that whatever menu we are cooking is the best we can do and we are going to offer it to every guest regardless of who they are. So we cook for everyone with the same amount of excitement and nervousness.

What is your source of inspiration?

When I go to a great restaurant and have an incredible meal, or to a market and see exceptional produce, it’s easy to draw inspiration because it translates directly to what I do. But I think inspiration can come from anywhere- not just food. It can be from nature, music, art, a conversation, film, etc. The key is being able to interpret that inspiration and express it with the tools of your particular craft. So a piece of music can relate to the tempo and pacing of a tasting menu, a painting can inspire a composition based on color, or scenery can inspire a certain aesthetic on the plate.

The views of the authors of these articles do not necessarily represent the views of First Republic Bank.