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How to Eat a Painting at the New SFMoMA

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Chef Corey Lee on his new project, In Situ, and paying homage to some of the best dishes by some of the best chefs around the world.

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In Situ, a new food project from Michelin-starred chef Corey Lee, opens today adjacent to the new SFMOMA. The swirl of conversation and press that’s preceded this opening—a restaurant-but-not-a-restaurant recreating the best dishes from the best chefs in the world—has been nearly as floaty and conceptual as the conversation around the actual museum. And that’s exactly how Lee wants it. After months of traveling the world, he sat down with us to explain the ambitious concept, a museum in its own right. 

How would you describe In Situ as a restaurant?
I’m not thinking of it as a restaurant at all, actually. There are some very practical things that we have to consider because we’re serving food, but what made me excited about this project is that it’s not just opening another restaurant—you can do that anywhere.

What is it then?
It’s really about partnering with the museum and adding a component to their opening that will be interesting and involves food. It’s a way for me to participate in something that’s happening in our city using the tools that I work with.

You traveled to learn many of the recipes on your menu—how many countries did you visit?
Nine countries, beginning in Hong Kong last summer. 

Will you walk us through one of your restaurant visits?
Wolfsburg was one of the cities I visited. I took an early train from Berlin, and it was very cold when I arrived. I’d never been to Wolfsburg before. It’s where all the Volkswagen factories are so it has a very industrial feel. But on the outskirts of the city, there’s an area that’s ultra-modern, called the Autostadt. The Volkswagen museum is here. And in the middle of this area, there’s a hotel with this amazing restaurant, Aqua. The chef, Sven Elverfeld, showed me around the hotel. It’s such an interesting place, juxtaposed on this really industrial background. The area feels like an architectural experiment.

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Then we went into Elverfeld’s very pristine, highly organized kitchen, and we began the recipe session. It involved three or four staffers, who showed me every single step. They had prepared a video, they had prepared a recipe that I could follow. And then, basically, I made that recipe, from start to finish, with them. And during that process, I was able to identify areas that I needed clarification on. I asked questions about certain variables that might change when I execute that dish in San Francisco. I got a full and complete understanding of that dish.

What’s the dish?
Braised lamb top side. There’s also grüne soße, or green frankfurter sauce, a poached egg, and a piece of steamed potato. It’s based on a very traditional dish from Frankfurt, where the chef is from. But every component is reinterpreted in a very modern way.

When the San Francisco Symphony plays “Swan Lake,” they aren’t ripping off Tchaikovsky. They’re paying homage to him by making the music more available for people.

What does it look like? Taste like?
The presentation reminds me of a Mondrian painting. It’s mosaic in its presentation and its assembly—it’s very striking. But when you actually eat it, it tastes comfortable and familiar, even if you’re not German.

How long did this take?
I was in Wolfsburg for 20 hours, and in the restaurant for half of the time. Twenty hours later I got on a train to Brussels.

But you couldn’t travel for all the recipes, right?
There are also chefs who are coming here. It’s not just about me going there, it’s them coming here [to San Francisco].

How did you get these world-famous chefs—including Alice Waters, René Redzepi, and Christian Puglisi—to participate?
In Situ isn’t just a result of traveling the last couple of months to develop recipes. It’s a project that represents the years of relationships my team and I have formed by working in the industry, and sharing ideas, and collaborating, and working in the same restaurants—and just interacting.

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How did they respond at first?
Chefs were so quick to be excited about this project because, as a creator, you understand the difference between authenticity and someone paying homage to your dish by recreating it somewhere else. 

How is it paying homage?
When the San Francisco Symphony plays “Swan Lake,” they aren’t ripping off Tchaikovsky. They’re paying homage to him by making the music more available for people. They’re keeping that work alive. And that’s why I think cooking is like the preforming arts, because what you make is ephemeral. You can’t just make a painting and circulate it around the world and have everyone see it as you’ve painted it.

How do you stay true to the chefs’ intentions with ingredients?
Some chefs require very specific ingredients from certain parts of the world. For other dishes, chefs want to use what’s available locally. It really depends on the chef. It’s not about putting our own take on the dish or offering our interpretation of the dish.

Even down to the plates?
Some chefs call for very specific dishes, so we’ve had to get in touch with the people who make those wares for them and have those dishes made for us. Some chefs are less concerned about presentation and only require a basic shape and size.

Any favorite dishes?

Not even one? Is it too much like picking a favorite child?
[Laughs] I really see our team just being the medium, the people executing this stuff, and as a conduit for that exchange. I separate myself from being a diner or the person actually consuming it.

What would you call yourself in this project, if not a chef?
I don’t know if a term exists. I think of my role more as a choreographer or a conductor. Their job is to really understand the piece and make sure the orchestra, or the company, performs that piece so that the audience can enjoy it the way it was intended to be enjoyed. At In Situ, I make sure that we execute this dish in the way it was intended for people to experience it. 

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