Within a few weeks, Corey Lee, chef of San Francisco’s year-old Benu restaurant—which recently nailed down two Michelin stars—will get a fall harvest from Napa. Of acorns.
Any California kid with a motivated fourth-grade social studies teacher knows acorns as Native American food, leached, ground, and boiled into mush. But Lee, who was born in Korea and grew up in the States, knows them from his grandmother’s visits from Seoul.
“I think she got bored, so she’d go out to the parks in New York and collect acorns,” Lee says. It was a laborious process, even after harvesting, all that shelling, leaching out bitter tannins, and grinding. “You need a lot of space to lay out acorns—the whole process was my first experience with anything on a scale like that,” Lee says. “And it’s the first time I saw anything being foraged from the wild.”
When it was all done, Lee’s grandmother turned the acorn paste into Korean muk, a traditional starchy gel, sometimes served as banchan, under a sort of sesame vinaigrette.
A couple of decades later, as chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, Lee found himself wondering what to cook at the 2008 Alimentaria expo in Spain, something with the right scale. It occurred to him: acorns.
“There are all these connections between acorns and sustenance,” Lee says, “all these major civilizations that started by eating acorns in places like the plains of China, or Mesopotamia." In a way, the chef says, acorns or the oaks that grew them were symbols of food itself, food reduced to its most elemental form.
What Lee came up with was a dish organized around the oak: pasta made largely from acorn flour, paired with jamón ibérico from pata negra pigs fattened on acorns. The dish is suffused with black truffles, which grow on the roots of oaks.
That acorn pasta is on Benu’s current a la carte menu. It’s a conceptual dish, rooted in some of Lee’s early food memories, but it doesn’t demand much thought to appreciate. It's delicious.
The double-helix strands of chewy strozzapreti (about three parts acorn flour to one part wheat) are a lovely toffee brown, with a mineral sweetness you have to strain to taste through the rich humus breath of Himalayan black truffle. Thin sheets of ham offer concentrated salt and the faintest whiff of dried blood, under a scattering of rendered ham fat the kitchen has dried and pulverized.
Lee's acorns are from Napa Valley oaks (on one of his partners' land), which produce relatively large acorns low in tannins. That’s important, since it means slightly less work to turn them into flour.
“Processing acorns is not an easy thing to do,” Lee explains. His 97-year-old grandmother in Seoul could probably tell you that.
Image source: John Birdsall/CHOW.com