Still starstruck after working his way up to leading one of Thomas Keller's kitchens and co-authoring Keller's latest cookbook.
By Corey Chow as told to Chris Mohney
Corey Chow is chef de cuisine at Per Se restaurant in New York, the East Coast sibling to Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry in Napa Valley. Along with his French Laundry counterpart, chef de cuisine David Breeden, Chow co-authored Keller’s new cookbook The French Laundry, Per Se.
When I was in college, I went with my mom to Williams-Sonoma to a book signing for The French Laundry Cookbook. I was studying psychology, but I was still curious about food. My mom was like, “Maybe you should take a look at this. Let’s go see it.” I was familiar with the impact that Thomas Keller had on the profession back then. I knew of him, but I had no clue that I was ever going to be working for him, and be the chef at one of his restaurants and now the co-author with him on a cookbook. I still pinch myself. It’s a dream.
In college, I was doing home therapy for autistic kids and stuff like that. I wanted to go into teaching. I graduated and I couldn’t find a good teaching job. So I was like, “I really love cooking and I want to try this.” I went to culinary school, and I enjoyed it. For the first time I got an A in college. I had perfect attendance. My grandparents cooked at restaurants, and they were like, “It’s too much hard work. It’s not for you. You shouldn’t do it.” But I still did it.
Learning to cook at Alan Wong’s in Hawaii was my foundation. Unfortunately, Alan Wong’s closed recently after 25 years. I was mentored by great chefs there. A lot of great chefs came out of that restaurant. And I enjoyed the culture. I enjoyed working hard. I enjoyed cooking and nurturing people. I never realized how much impact cooking food has on guests. It’s why we do what we do. It’s nurturing. It’s creating conversations for people. It’s cooking for people that are celebrating. It’s cooking for your family that you bring together on holidays or just the weekends.
When I was in high school, I would go to my dad’s side of the family for dinner on Saturdays, and my mom’s side on Sundays. In high school, you don’t want to hang out with your family. I never realized how important it was. What brought us together was them cooking for us. I really appreciate it now. I want to do that for my own family.
Cooking in Hawaii was what brought me to New York. Chef Jonathan Benno came, and we did a dinner at Alan Wong’s. We closed the restaurant for two days just for that dinner—one day to prep, and another day for a buyout for the Per Se team. I saw the level of execution and professionalism that Chef Benno brought. I was like, “Wow, this is real life. This is to play with the big boys. This is the highest level of culinary professionalism in America. I think I want to do this.” I
I wanted to push myself. I wanted to test myself to see if I could hang in New York City. It was scary at the same time, but I knew that if I could at least survive a couple of years, I could say I did it and I tried. It was humbling, too, because when I came out here to trail for a job, Chef Benno didn’t have anything for me at Per Se. That was a real ego check for me. I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, coming from Hawaii.
I had worked at Alan Wong’s for six years. I did all the stations. I thought I was pretty good. Then I came out to New York, and it was like, “Holy crap. This is what it takes.” I didn’t get the job then, so I had to really focus and see what I wanted to do. I came back home and started cooking a lot and practicing. Chef Benno called me five months later and said, “Are you still coming out here?” I was like, “Chef, you let me know when you need me, and I’ll be there.” And I jumped on a plane, and I’ve been at Per Se ever since.
I was a little starstruck working on The French Laundry, Per Se. I got to work with Susie Heller, I got to work with Michael Ruhlman, I got to work with Deborah Jones. To work with Michael—I read all his books when I was in culinary school. To actually meet him and talk to him, and work with him—it’s still crazy to me. The first meeting that I had with him, I brought my wife’s copy of one of his books so he could sign it. She went to culinary school, and she loves his books, too.
To be able to work with the same team that made the previous cookbook 25 years ago—it’s pretty amazing to be able to do that with that same team and see the process. That process was a little bit different because we had to test recipes here in New YOrk, and then I had to go to California to shoot, or Deborah had to come to New York to shoot our dishes here. But I think it was a great learning experience. I mean, it was a two year project. For Chef Keller to give David Breeden and I the freedom to translate our food into his book was pretty generous.
We started these recipes for the cookbook three years ago. At Per Se, we change the menu every day. If we want to refine something, I’ll try it again. It’s a constant refinement of the dishes that we do, but it’s also a personal story of where we come from and how we come up with the ideas and techniques. The book is an insider’s look at how our brains work, how we take simple concepts and refine them and turn them into three-Michelin-star cuisine.
I’m excited about the clam chowder recipe. If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, you go get a sourdough bread bowl with clam chowder right on the pier. It’s nice and hot. It’s comforting. I always did that with my father. How do you refine that? I’m not going to give someone a bread bowl at Per Se. So we made the sourdough bread liquid. Texturally, it’s creamy, it’s delicious, but it reminds you of something. We’re on the East Coast, and the clams in New England are great. It’s like that San Francisco clam chowder. How about we marry the two together?
These are just background stories of where we’re coming from. It’s just stuff that I grew up, and that’s how Chef Keller thinks, too. It’s how he came with the salmon cornets, like the cones from Baskin-Robbins.
David and I both came from nothing, so it shows how you don’t have to go to culinary school or do 10 different stages or work a year here and work a year there. Through the recipes and the food, you hear a story through how we do things at the restaurant. I share these stories with the other chefs. We have the freedom here to come up with a dish that speaks from us. I think that’s a translation of Chef Keller’s mentoring. He mentored David and I to cook from where we come from, and we’re mentoring the next generation at our restaurants on how to cook according to that philosophy.