Three-Michelin-star chef Corey Lee's new restaurant, In Situ, is the culinary version of an ace cover band: other chefs' greatest hits, made by him. He tells Francis Lam about the project.

Francis Lam: French chefs used to be judged on how well they execute a canon, this established repertoire of dishes. But then, over time, their own creativity became more and more important, to the point where now it'd be super offensive for someone to go up to a chef after a meal and say, "Oh, you know, that dish was just like a dish that I had from this other chef one time."

We're all supposed to believe that every dish is now completely original, and yet, you're about to open a restaurant where none of the dishes on the menu are yours. They're all borrowed, or, one might even say, copied, from other restaurants. So, what inspired you to open a restaurant where you're the equivalent of a covers band?

Corey Lee: I didn't really think of it so much as a traditional restaurant at all. It's more like an installation within the SFMOMA [Ed. note: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where In Situ is located], so it became less about trying to open a restaurant with its own identity and more about, "How can we contribute to this expanding museum and offer something that's really engaging for the visitors?"

FL: Who are some of the chefs that you're covering?

CL: In Japan, we have Hajime from Restaurant Hajime in Osaka, and Seiji Yamamoto from RyuGin. Locally, we have a lot of chefs here as well: Alice Waters from Chez Panisse, David Kinch from Manresa. Fom Italy: Massimiliano Alajmo, Massimo Bottura as well. From France: Pascal Barbot, Alexandre Gauthier. The list is quite long. We have about 90 dishes right now.

FL: How do you go about learning 90 dishes?

butter ice cream
Butter ice cream from Maaemo (Photo: Jan Mark Holzer/Flickr)

CL: The process of learning these dishes is one of the greatest challenges, but also, what makes it so exciting is that you're working with chefs from around the world, and you're talking in different languages. You're getting into how to think about a dish, and then you're shifting gears completely and starting to learn the dish of another chef.

That's really important because, although we have 90 dishes on the actual menu, there might be 15 dishes at one time. But we need that rotation because some dishes are only available seasonally, for maybe a couple weeks out of the year. We also want some diversity in the menu. So, it's really important for us to have a large repertoire that we can draw to put together a balanced menu.

FL: What's one of the most challenging dishes that you had to learn?

CL: There are so many challenging dishes, and it's not really about the technique that makes it challenging. It's about understanding how that dish came together to replicate it faithfully, to really understand the spirit of the dish, and then understand that dish in the context of their restaurant, and trying to somehow convey that to the guests here in San Francisco.

FL: Can you give us an example?

CL: Sure. There's a dish from Maaemo in Norway, and it's a very simple dish based on a butter ice cream from a particular region of Norway, and when we replicate that dish here in San Francisco, the actual technique is very simple. It's an ice cream that you use butter as the fat more than cream. You get a very nice mouthfeel, and it's served with a little bit of streusel and some molasses.

The actual technique that's involved in executing that dish is rather simple, but what's really important about that dish is how they use this very special butter at a particular time, and how that's different from when they do that dish at another time.

You can see the progression of this flavor throughout the seasons and how that reflects what the cows are grazing on. That was what was really important, to understand the reason why that dish came about, and why that dish is interesting, and why it continually changes throughout the year.

Francis Lam

Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.