PRESS CHECK: Benu
It is not often to experience pure emotional romance and beauty in a cookbook like Benu. The dedication to it's balanced creation is apparent across words, design and imagery.
Unlike traditional culinary books, this unique piece is presented as an elegant 32-course tasting menu alongside dream-scape travels, which create a vivid and dramatic look at the culture and inspiration that has been cultivated at San Fransisco's Michelin awarded restaurant, Benu. Whether you looking to challenge yourself with intricate dishes, or just enjoy the behind the scenes journey of how each beautiful plate came to life - this is a gorgeous and thoughtful book worth considering for your collection.
We speak with Chef Corey Lee, Photographer Eric Wolfinger and Phaidon's Creative Director Julia Hasting to learn about the creative process and ideas that went into creating this dynamic work of life and art.
Author & Chef:
What was your main objective trying to visually represent the experience of Benu onto the page?
My main goal was to closely communicate Corey Lee’s thinking, philosophy thought and-working process as well as to reveal the experience of dining at Benu. I wanted the book’s design to create the same refined overall aesthetic and identity of the food served at Benu.
In order to achieve this all component that form the design of the book are carefully considered and form together a bespoke identity:
The decision to use bold lines to replace paragraph breaks is the idea to mirror closely graphic elements on Benu’s sake boxes as well as the calm minimal shelving holding his ceramic dishes.
Letter shapes in the chosen typeface closely reference the frequent circular shapes in Corey’s dishes and food creations.
The background colors of each recipe and recipe story take close reference from the tonalities in the food creations and the landscapes and culture the dishes originate from.
The pacing, grid and structure of the book layout reflect the minimal and calm atmosphere of the Benu restaurant.
Where there many iterations or metamorphosis of design throughout the journey creating this book?
No, there were hardly any alterations made to the design during the process of laying out the book – I was very pleased to hear that Corey was thrilled from the beginning about the general design concept and approach. All that was adjusted was the final sequencing of the imagery but the general concept was approved from the beginning.
The cover is mesmerizing and tactile. What was the specific creative direction given and how did this visual and physical texture come to life in such a powerful way?
Same goal as mention above applies to the cover direction.
My cover design is inspired by Corey Lee’s signature dish of dumplings xiao long bao [pages 110-115 in the book], as well as the beautifully folded fabrics of napkins in the restaurant. I thought the round shape and tonality and twisted top of these dumpling-shape very well reflect the sophisticated but minimal character of the food served at Benu.
In my cover design the twisted folded top of the dumpling shape directly molds the book cover material and transforms the book into an object itself. It is a deep 3 dimensional emboss on a pale delicate linen fabric. The title has been foil-blocked in glossy black to contrast the main cover feature and to create yet another texture. All elements that form the cover as well as the interior paper are intentionally selected to be very tactile components, so they remind of the great attention Corey Lee himself pays to materials and textures, not only in his food but also in his ceramic dishes creations.
CHEF & AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT
What three words describe the Benu dining experience and how did you translate that into an equally powerful printed experience?
Delicious, thoughtful and distinctive. The book afforded me the opportunity to explain the details of a dish that I otherwise would not be able to fully express during the dining experience. In many ways, it was easier to explain in words than it is through cooking.
The images in this book are incredibly romantic, both on the plate and on the road. What was your creative partnership like with Eric Wolfinger? How did you two work together to communicate such powerful visual storytelling?
Eric and I had worked together several times before, and we have watched each other's style evolve over the years. That history helped us communicate because a language had already been developed. I think our partnership on this project started by making sure we were connected in our vision for the book's mood- everything else followed.
This book is a sincere love letter to the work that goes into Benu and filled with inspiration. What keeps you inspired each day and how do you focus that kind of creative stimulation into such a large project?
There's a difference between being inspired and being dedicated. To be honest, inspiration is not a daily occurrence, but dedication is a daily requirement. While dedication may not seem as romantic as the notion of being inspired, it's what eventually allows the moments of inspiration to materialize into something more than just an ephemeral emotion. But having said all that, the experience of being inspired is a very powerful one, and I suppose the longing for that feeling is the fuel for me.
What were the main challenges and rewards that occurred while bringing this book to life? Is there a creative process that worked particularly well or anything you might do differently in the future?
The main challenge was to find continuous time for me to work on the book. Obviously I'm not a professional writer, so it was difficult for me to quickly slip back into that mode sporadically. Eventually, I had to block out and dedicate several days at a time to the book. The final draft ended up being much more personal than I had ever planned- including essays about my upbringing and personal experiences I've never shared before. That was both challenging and rewarding. I definitely finished writing the book with a better understanding of myself, not only as a chef but on a human level. The future? I don't know; I don't think I'll ever write a book myself again.
You mention in the Benu book trailer that it is all about finding yourself in your work and knowing that there is meaning in such discovery. What did you discover about yourself during the creation of this book?
I always thought that I became a chef accidentally through a series of random events and circumstances. But I discovered, through the process of writing the book, that it was almost inevitable and that I was on course long before I realized.
What was it like to partner and create with Corey Lee? What were the initial creative discussions and visions communicated that helped shape what we’re seeing in the bound book?
Chemistry and trust between chef and photographer is everything for such a personal project. I was thrilled when Corey asked me to shoot his cookbook, but my first response was: “dude, are you sure?”
Corey operates at the highest level of fine dining, and I worried my style might be a little too loose and off the cuff for his book. Of course I would rise to the occasion, but I wondered why he would choose to work with a photographer who is naturally drawn to a grittier, more spontaneous reality.
Of course he was sure. When Corey Lee makes a move, he has thoroughly thought it through. We had worked together a few times before and had developed an honest and vigorous dialogue that he appreciated. A few weeks later we met at Benu, and spent a few hours really drilling into his vision and inspiration for the restaurant. The conversation took us from California to France to Japan to Korea and back.
Only at the end of the conversation, Corey asked: “So, how do you see this book?”
I described my first experience dining at Benu. I felt like I was entering a monastery where the atmosphere is restrained and the mood respectful and contemplative. As each course came to the table, I felt as if the server was presenting a different jewel in its own specially designed box. I told him I saw a book that captured the ethos and experience of Benu – but that would break from restaurant to show Corey's inspiration outside its walls. In the photographs, the order portrayed inside the restaurant would be set in relief against the fleshy reality outside.
We both agreed that we had to go to Korea. And we also agreed the prevailing mood of the book was “melancholy.”
This book features photographs that span from highly stylized plating to sincere in the moment lifestyle, what was your approach in capturing such diverse yet equally dramatic images?
Phaidon's art direction for food photography is simple and firm: “keep everything in focus, don't crop the plates.” This took away two of the most powerful tools I use to create depth and vibrance in a food photograph; it would be like taking butter away from a French chef. I embraced the challenge and doubled down, shooting with only one surface and one light for the entire production. I feel the publisher's direction brought us closer to the truest representation of Corey Lee's vision than I would have on my own – and it only worked as well as it did because his food can command such an austere scene.
In the outside photos, Corey and Phaidon turned me loose. Corey and I discussed the narrative and the subject matter of these images – particularly in the San Francisco photos – but he trusted my process. I like to step out into the world and engage with it. I'm a traveler and I do some of my best work when I'm thrown into unfamiliar situations. I think the Haenyeo chapter shows that the art is in the immersion – in every sense! – and connecting with the people and the place.
Huge credit must be given to the book's designer who married these two aesthetics in a way that is cohesive and totally supports Corey's intentions for the book.
You baked professionally for many years, how do you think this experience has helped you cultivate your unique creative style?
The camera points both ways: toward the subject and toward the photographer. What’s in the photographer’s mind and heart, and his relationship with the subject directs the way he sees and captures it.
Before photography I worked as a line cook where I learned to absorb, understand, and finally recreate a chef's vision. From the kitchen I went to baking, where I spent four and a half years devoted to the single minded pursuit of “the perfect loaf” at Tartine with Chad Robertson. Bread is the epitome of simplicity – it is made only of flour, water and salt – but mastering its craft is beguilingly complex. I prodded Chad with so many questions during my apprenticeship that our conversations clarified a lot of his own understanding of the bread. When we started working on Tartine Bread, he felt the depth of my understanding of the bread and the quality of our collaboration would be a greater asset to the project than hiring a 'professional food photographer.’
Five years and about a dozen cookbooks later, I still approach my work like an inquisitive, enthusiastic cook.
What are a few of your favorite moments while shooting this cookbook? Any particular stories or images that resonate most for you while being in the Benu kitchen and on the road while creating it?
The most exciting stop on our Korean itinerary was to the island of Jeju where we would spend a day with the Haenyeo. I was hell bent on shooting the legendary “diving grandmothers” in the water, and before the trip I consulted a friend and legendary surf-photographer on underwater photography. I carted around a wetsuit, swim fins and camera housing for the whole trip in preparation for that one day. Everyone thought I was crazy, and our guide who had spent years with the Haenyeo confidently assured me I would drown trying to keep up with them. I reassured everyone that I been surfing since I was a kid and am very comfortable in the ocean – is an 85 year old woman really going to be a stronger swimmer than me? – but everyone's doubts made me nervous.
The Haenyeo stay in the water for six hours, and I lasted only four. When I emerged from the water – unharmed but shivering cold and very tired – I found Corey on the shore with a Haenyeo cleaning conches. I don't speak Korean but I could immediately tell what was happening. The Haenyeo are confident and supremely impatient with anyone they sense is incompetent; I got the treatment in the water, and now it was Corey's turn. The old Haenyeo grabbed the conch from his hand and scolded him for going too slow. “This is how you do it” she gestured vigorously, and then she let him try again. Exasperated that he was still too slow, she cleaned the rest while he watched.
We were going to cook lunch with the Haenyeo, and I fully expected Corey to rise from the conch debacle and show them some of his skills. Instead I watched him follow the Haenyeo cook around the kitchen and do whatever she told him to do: help strain the stock, chop the green onions, just hold the pot. Corey was the epitome of grace, and I could tell that he was truly enjoying himself and appreciating every moment of the experience.
Before we went to Korea, Corey confessed he was a little nervous about the trip – in his adult life, he couldn't remember a single time that he spent nine straight days with one person. We managed just fine, and I was lucky to get a fuller picture of the man behind the apron. To his well earned reputation in the kitchen, I would add that Corey is one of the most thoughtful and gracious people I have ever met.
“Press Check” is a DXD Original Series which takes a deeper look behind the scenes of the publishing industry by focusing on the creative process of authors, photographers & designers and how they create magic for the page before it hits the printing press.
A huge amount of thanks and gratitude for everyone's time spent giving this deeper understanding on such a beautiful collaboration and publication.
Photos courtesy of Phiadon Press/ Eric Wolfinger