CHEF EXTRAORDINAIRE FERRAN ADRIÀ AND DOM PÉRIGNON’S RICHARD GEOFFROY EAT, DRINK AND MAKE MERRY FOR ONE UNFORGETTABLE EVENING
Ekkebus, taking in the sights and sounds of Hong Kong’s oldest (and soon-to-be defunct) wet market, on Graham Street.
“It’s interesting. In San Francisco, we’re very conscious of where the products are coming from, how they inform our sense of place,” says Lee. “But in Hong Kong, all bets are off.” He explains that, while provenance and locality may be important in the Bay Area, it’s just not the same in a city such as Hong Kong, which is so heavily reliant on imported produce. While the food-lover vernacular may favour the whole idea of “farm-to-table” cooking, Lee’s a little more critical of the concept, believing that it’s a privilege that isn’t available in every context.
Lee was intrigued by the wet market, particularly from a cultural standpoint. “More than anything, it reflects an eating tradition of Hong Kong and the people—not professional chefs,” he says. “The thing is, I think this idea of locality came around because chefs are interested in quality. If you have this idea of farm-to-table and you establish a rule where you want to use everything only if it’s grown within 100 miles of your restaurant, it doesn’t necessarily mean the quality is there. That’s why I understand the way Hong Kong is—you get the best products you can.”
“I REALLY FOCUS ON SPENDING RESOURCES WHERE IT COUNTS—NOT A CHANDELIER OR A PICASSO ON THE WALL”
For the dinner at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, that’s exactly what Lee did. A dish of bamboo shoot with fresh peas, truffle and roasted hen jus was reliant on his sourcing team pulling off the impossible: finding what felt like the last 50 fresh bamboo shoots in Japan, which were already in their final days of the season. But that’s exactly what Lee’s cooking is all about—a humble ingredient, at its peak, served simply but in surprising combinations. Some have described the Benu restaurant as “lo-fi opulence”—and it’s a statement that Lee laughs at.
“I’m not sure if ‘opulence’ is the right word when it comes to my food,” he says. “What makes it luxurious is the enormous amount of thought put into the dishes and the enormous amount of resources used to execute them.” To Lee, fine dining is no longer what it was 20 to 30 years ago, when it was heavily focused on sourcing expensive and luxurious products—the finest Beluga caviar from Kazakhstan, blue lobster from Scotland—whereas today, it’s more about technique and transforming those ingredients into something that will contribute to a special meal.
“Diners want an experience that reflects something personal to the chef or unique
to the restaurant,” he explains. “As modern young chefs, we’ve taken the idea of opulence and presented it on our own terms. I really focus on spending our resources on where it counts—not a chandelier or having a Picasso on the wall.”
A classic Benu take on luxury? “A good example is oyster with pork belly and kimchi, because what’s more humble than taking a cabbage and fermenting it?” says Lee. Yet the one-bite dish takes an extraordinary amount of effort to create—seven separate recipes need to be executed before it all comes together, and the canapé combines contrasting textures and temperatures for a moment of bewilderment.
“I became very comfortable long ago with doing dishes that aren’t for everyone,” says Lee. “It’s not about doing safe food. What’s the point of keeping someone in their seat for three hours, charging them a lot of money, making them wait to dine, just to do something that’s very predictable? There’s no point. For me, it’s okay to do things that aren’t for everyone, that are somewhat challenging at times, that they may not even like. I think you have to accept that as a chef.” He concludes, “This dish is very personal to me—and that’s what you go for.”
Corey Lee takes a stroll with Richard Ekkebus through Central’s historic Graham Street wet market
Lee’s dishes are unmistakably Asian-inflected, including (from left) his famed lobster coral xiaolongbao, spring porridge with sea urchin, and thousand-year-old quail egg with potage and ginger