Industry Insiders: Chef Corey Lee of French Laundry Fame

The French Laundry’s chef de cuisine Corey Lee on late-night Chinese food delivery, his non-scenester bar of choice, and the rigorous work schedule of a culinary master.

What’s your job description? I’m a chef at a fine dining restaurant, French Laundry. My job includes a lot of things; mainly maintaining the standards of the restaurant — making sure that the restaurant continues to evolve and gets better but in a way that’s consistent with the identity of French Laundry and with the chef/owner Thomas Keller. Those are the things that are important … that we’re not locked into the same things that we’ve done for years, but making sure that the changes are sensible and still identifiable with French Laundry.

Any culinary guilty pleasures? My one culinary guilty pleasure is definitely American Chinese food. It stems from getting takeout in New York. You can go home from work and have delivery to your home within ten minutes at three in the morning.

Where do you eat or go out? Three come to mind right away, and it’s just a coincidence that they’re sorta Japanese-based. One is Masa at the Time Warner Center in New York — Masa Takayama’s restaurant. The other one is Urasawa in L.A. Those are really the two best meals I’ve had in the States. There’s a certain amount of personality and intimacy that’s conveyed when you eat at those restaurants, and it has to do with the size of the restaurants and that they cater the meal to each individual diner.

The last one is a small bar called Angel’s Share on St. Mark’s in New York. It’s a small bar, but it’s unique in that it’s very much like the kind of bar you’d find in Tokyo where the service is really great. It’s not a scene, it’s not a trendy bar, and it’s been around for 15-16 years now. It’s a place where they make the cocktails very well; the bartenders are serious about what they do. They train for years to finally tend bar, and they have a great whiskey list and great scotch list. It’s one of those places where it’s not about the place that you’re going or the backdrop, it’s about the person you’re with. It’s quiet enough to enjoy your companion. It’s like hundreds of bars you’d find in Tokyo but are hard to find in New York.

Have you noticed any positive trends in your industry? You hear these terms like “ultra-modern cuisine” or “molecular gastronomy” — whatever you want to call it. But to me, the basic idea is that you have a scientific understanding of what’s happening when you cook and what happens to the food. Certainly this trend is happening with food that’s very new and very modern, and it’s something I like not necessarily because of the results but because it’s allowed chefs to have a deeper understanding of what they’re doing on a scientific basis and not just out of tradition. There are so many misconceptions and things you were taught from previous chefs, or that you’ve read in books, that are just blatantly wrong; like folklore, really. And finally we’re coming into an age where chefs — not just industrial chefs, like, say, the people at Frito Lay — but chefs at restaurants are collaborating more with scientists to get a better understanding of what they’re doing and how to better their food.

Negative trends? There’s so much interest in restaurants and chefs the past decade or so; it’s almost been at a vertical slope in terms of outside interest in the restaurant industry. Unfortunately in some instances it’s made the goals of chefs very different than they were a few years ago. Certainly the interest is great for business, it helps people understand the cuisine and helps people understand what we do, but at the same time people have come to associate being a successful chef with having a certain amount of fame. And more and more you see young cooks coming out of school and pursuing those aspects of the industry. That’s not what you should be in the hospitality industry for. We’re there to serve our guests and to work as craftsmen; we work with our hands. That should be the premise behind becoming a chef, not the pursuit of some kind of fame or accolades from the media.

What are you doing tonight? Well, it’s Friday night, so I’m at the restaurant preparing for the evening. Ask any chef what they’re doing on a Friday, and more often than not they’re working.

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