Someone please buy me an around-the-world airplane ticket!

After day of eating, drinking, talking and listening to some of the world’s most interesting and talked-about chefs from overseas and Australia, all I want to do is jump on a plane and feast.

The 7.5 hour program of the Langham Melbourne Chef Masterclasses is a marathon assault on the senses and I’m still trying to wrap my head around so many ideas and thoughts and philosophies and recipes. But here’s the first of a multi-part post on four amazing chefs.

My day started with Korean-American chef Corey Lee, ex-chef de cuisine of Thomas Keller’s 3 Michelin star The French Laundry and 18 months into owning and cooking at his 2 Michelin star fine-dining establishment Benu. With Benu (which is Egyptian for Phoenix and a name chosen for its not-immediately-apparent ethnic origin) Corey explores and reinterprets Asian techniques, ingredients and histories.

His presentation started with a video giving us a glimpse into the workings of his 64 seater restaurant – lots of chefs, tweezering with surgical precision, a reminder at the pass to ‘SMILE’ –  before getting down to work with his sous chef.

His demonstration menu consisted of two dishes simply listing their main ingredients – anchovy, peanuts, lily bulb, pickles and pine nut glutinous rice cakes with black truffle and pine needle honey. These short descriptions belie the complexity of the recipes and techniques.

This little savoury spoonful contains anchovy gelee, lily bulb puree, pickles of various vegetables and garnished with caramelised anchovies, red chilli curls, coriander and raw lily bulbs.

The second sweeter dish would appear about midway through the tasting menu and was a very glutinous rice cake with a hint of fresh, green honey macerated in pine needles from the forests of the Sierra Nevada.

Some thoughts from Corey:

  • He wanted to serve a dumpling in his menu because stuffing something into dough is something universal in all food cultures. He settled on a xiao long bao as it is extremely technical but at Benu he uses lean pork and foie gras as the filling and a precisely 18g thin yeast dough as the wrapping.
  • Wine pairings were difficult with the menu given the Asian flavour profiles and because his tasting menu can be around 16-18 courses he decided not to match a wine with every course. The menu allows beer, tea and non-alcoholic drink pairings as well.
  • He worked at The French Laundry for 9 years and from that experience gained technical expertise, a way of setting up a back of house system and mostly admired the way Thomas managed to get the best out of people and his generosity.
  • He feels less pressure being the head of Benu than as the head chef at The French Laundry because with his own restaurant he’s not responsible for the reputation and kitchen of another person.
  • From the beginning he wanted to put Shark Fin Soup on his menu because he wanted to tap into its reference point as a dish eaten to mark a celebratory, special occasion. His fake shark fin was the result of working with a science lab in San Diego to replicate the texture and flavour of this now-banned ingredient.
  • Tips for young chef – learn to work cleanly, quietly, quickly and be creative – in that order.

Despite his impressive CV and the hype about his restaurant, Corey seemed to be quite a relaxed and self-effacing (single) guy. The kind of chef that if you asked nicely you might be able to visit his kitchen. Oh – and if you want to book at Benu, they open for bookings 2 months ahead.