How Corey Lee makes fresh jellyfish taste great

It may be essentially 95% water but a recent diving trip inspired the Benu chef to create yet another sublime dish

Chefs at the very top of the profession face an ongoing dilemma. In order to bring their restaurants up to Michelin star standards, they must put in incredibly long hours. Yet, they also need to be inspired by the world beyond the kitchen, to create great dishes and menus. Some, like Noma's René  Redzepi, move their restaurant somewhere exciting, like Tokyo. Others, such as Benu's Corey Lee, make time for inspiration.

As the chef and owner of the three Michelin star San Francisco restaurant Benu explained at the international gastronomy event Madrid Fusión, in the Spanish capital a few days ago, “We have to actively pursue experiences that inspire us. More often than not, you have to carve out time in a very disciplined way to inform your cooking.”


One of Jeju Island's legendary divers
One of Jeju Island's legendary divers

By way of example, Lee recalled the same gastronomic field trip he described to back in December: a 2014 journey to Jeju, South Korea's largest island, to meet the elderly ladies who free dive for fresh seafood. Back in December, Corey could only describe his admiration for the catch-of-the-day dish these women prepared - a soup of conch and radish thickened with buckwheat. 

Yet two months later, at the Madrid show, Corey was able to reveal how he has gone on to interpret it. Corey's homage was a broth served with Californian abalone, prawns, sea cucumber, geoduck, uni, buckwheat groats, and thinly-sliced radishes.

However, he also added that his enduring memory of that trip was “of eating something that had just been alive, of harvesting it and cooking it then and there.”

With this in mind, he's taken to serving fresh Monterey jellyfish. “Rarely do you eat fresh jellyfish,” Lee explained, “but when you do it’s an entirely different experience. It’s very soft, like aloe vera or long-cooked beef cartilage — wobbly. Also, it deteriorates within hours of being killed because it’s 95 percent water.”


Corey Lee at work in Benu
Corey Lee at work in Benu

Lee's solution was to serve just the tender, inner part of the animal (or, more accurately, cnidaria) almost immediately after it was caught, in a beef consommé; the texture is said to resemble beef cartilage, while the taste is, well pretty much indescribable. In a final tribute to the trip that inspired him, Lee adds octopus, seaweed, and a rice yeast rice, the jagged outline of which is supposed to resemble Jeju's coast.

If you've ever tried this dish at Benu, do let us know; meanwhile, if you'd like to find out more about Lee, his inspiration and his cookery, buy a copy of our new book.