One of the nation's most esteemed dining critics, Pete Wells of the New York Times, is lavishing praise on chef Corey Lee's month-old restaurant (or is it an exhibition?) inside SFMOMA, called In Situ. "By avoiding originality, In Situ is the most original new restaurant in the country," he writes.
As was revealed last fall, the three-Michelin-starred Lee's ambitious concept is focused on recreating dishes from participating chefs rather than concocting new ones. After all, with two other projects (Benu, Monsieur Benjamin) to his name, Lee has space to experiment with his own ideas. But at In Situ, as the chef said in an interview at the outset, "No matter what time of year you visit [In Situ] you’ll get a cross section of what’s going on around the world both geographically and stylistically.”
"Two points about this lunch struck me," Wells observed of his recent visit. "First, everything was delicious. Second, the flavors veered wildly different from dish to dish — they were, so to speak, all over the map — and it didn’t matter." Surely Lee is reading that remark very happily somewhere: He's said in the past that he doesn't mind if a dining experience doesn't flow completely at In Situ. "We’re not trying to offer it as a restaurant experience," Lee said, "We’re hoping it’s a fun and engaging cultural experience in the SFMOMA."
Wells thinks that Lee can pull this all off because, "There are more famous chefs in the United States, but few whose technical mastery is as deeply respected in the business." Chefs are down to let Lee canonize their menu items, such as a shrimp and grits dish that Wells started his meal with. Every item gets a credit, in that case like this: (Wylie Dufresne; WD-50; New York City; 2014). For another example, the critic concluded his lunch with Wood Sorrel & Sheep’s Milk Yogurt (René Redzepi; Noma; Copenhagen; 2005).
"My mix-and-match lunch was more like listening to a playlist, in fact, than walking through a museum," writes wells. "A new dish would come to the table, and I’d get into it, and then it would end and something new would start. Being unconnected to one another didn’t seem to hurt the dishes; if anything, they gained something from the surprise of each new segue."
Wells does wonder if there are many "customers who care about restaurants in Lima and Copenhagen enough to have seen some of these dishes in cookbooks or at least in the Instagram accounts of the chefs in question" to support the restaurant. But his takeaway is that In Situ has cleverly pulled up a seat for fine dining at the modern art table. As he puts it, "One thing In Situ proves, just by existing, is that certain chefs are now cultural figures in a sense that once applied only to practitioners of what used to be called high culture: literature, concert music, avant-garde painting. A Redzepi dish can be visited in an art museum in 2016, and nobody finds this very strange."