Published below is an exclusive extract from the introduction of the beautifully written book, which attempts to not only share the experience of dining at Benu, but also the perspective of working there. It includes beautiful images, essays and delicious recipes from the restaurant that give insight into their cooking and influences. Ultimately, the restaurant and its cuisineis to be enjoyed, and hopefully something to learn from.For more information or to purchase the book, head tophaidon.com/benu.
“During our opening, I often got asked, ‘What kind of restaurant is Benu?’ That question always made me a bit uneasy. If I tried answering with any sort of detail, I could see people tune out; they wanted a term or category they understood, or had at least heard before. So I used words like ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern American.’ They seemed to be satisfied with those, although I’m not sure if anyone really knows what they mean; I certainly don’t.
The truth is, when we first opened, I had no idea what kind of restaurant it would be. I knew some of the dishes I wanted to make, and some ingredients I wanted to feature, but I didn’t know why, or if those things even qualified in defining a cuisine. What I did know was how I wanted diners to feel. I wanted them to feel comfortable and relaxed. To feel taken care of, but not pampered in the traditional, fine-dining sense. I wanted them to be excited, for there to be a sense of discovery, and also find warm familiarity in our food. But these things don’t make up a genre either. Many chefs come to San Francisco and find inspiration in the local produce. They shop religiously at the farmers’ market, work closely with local purveyors, and develop a style of cooking that’s informed by those relationships and guided by the seasons. I love that kind of cooking, and it is the backbone of our city’s cuisine. However, I had just spent a decade in Napa Valley, surrounded by agriculture, at a restaurant that ran its own farm. We planted and harvested our own vegetables, picked fruit just hours before using it, and engaged in heirloom gardening. I’d already known what it is to have an intimate relationship with the land, to work in tandem with its cycles, and cook food that was driven by the morning’s harvest. So for me it would be disingenuous to say I was suddenly moved by the produce when I came to San Francisco—that epiphany had happened for me years ago, when I first arrived in California. And while Benu relies on having access to the bounty of our area, that’s not what inspires the cuisine. As Benu becamemore settled, and as I got more familiar with San Francisco, I came to realize there was a synergy between the restaurant and the location that I had not anticipated, one that had developed naturally.
Benu would be out of place in a rural setting like the Napa Valley or some remote locale along the Pacific coast. It is a restaurant that belongs in a modern city, and befits a lively one with a long history of diversity, cultural exchange, and cosmopolitanism. San Francisco was first European, then Mexican, and later the gateway city between America and the Far East. And, more than any other American city I know, San Francisco is a cultural amalgamation. Sure, New York and LA are melting pots and have huge immigrant populations, but the various ethnicities in those cities have formed enclave communities separate from the mainstream: East LA might as well be Mexico; parts of Queens could be China or Korea. San Francisco’s ethnic groups are much more integrated into the rest of society, resulting in a culture unique to the city. I think there’s an urban beauty in that, and I feel that Benu belongs here. Benu is very much a restaurant that’s influenced by different cultures. Like San Francisco and its environs, which has the highest Asian concentration of any area in the US, there’s a distinct Eastern influence. Sense of place is expressed not so much in the locality of the products we use, but through the spirit and the cultural influences of our area that permeate our food. The cooking at Benu often explores how Asian flavors, ideas, and aesthetics can harmonize with Western ones. In that way, I think it reflects a bit of my bicultural background as well. And in the process of establishing an identity for the restaurant, I came to a better understanding of my own.
These days, when people ask me that dreaded question, ‘What kind of restaurant is Benu?’ I try to convey what I’ve explained here. People often respond, ‘Oh, I see. So, fusion.’ I just smile and say, ‘Yes, fusion.’ In the following pages, you have the best answer I can give, explained through the progression of one of our menus. The dishes are from throughout the year to give you a broader sampling of our cooking. And there are a few more courses than we would normally serve but, really, who cares? Each chapter, or ‘course,’ has a short narrative that explains the composition, an ingredient, or the inspiration behind it. There are recipes, but this is not a book intended to be cooked from. It is meant to archive and share with you something that our team works so tirelessly to execute every day. Food is an ephemeral form of expression, and I want to document some of our hard work.At its most ambitious level, I hope this book will spur chefs to make new and delicious creations with some of the ingredients that we use. And for diners, to seek out some new food adventures. I hope you enjoy it.”
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For more information or to purchase the book, click herephaidon.com/benu.
Images by Eric Wolfinger © Phaidon Press Inc.