Chef Richard Lee joined Saison Hospitality in 2019, initially taking on the role of Executive Sous Chef and swiftly climbing the ranks to Chef de Cuisine. Earlier this year he was named Executive Chef of the hospitality group’s two Michelin-starred Saison, and as Executive Chef, Lee has continued to evolve Saison’s live-fire cooking traditions, infusing his culinary creations with nuanced flavors influenced by his Chinese roots and a deep appreciation for the ever-changing terroir of the Bay Area.
Executive Chef Lee seeks to redefine what fine dining is and push the boundaries of what it could be. Beyond that, he hopes to both maintain and continually better an environment that allows creativity and curiosity to flourish, while upholding the highest standards of integrity, accountability and compassion in the kitchen and throughout the establishment.
Fueled by his commitment to purity and innovation, Executive Chef Lee’s dedication is complemented by a Grand Award-winning wine list in an intentional setting where both guests and the team come together to enjoy an intimate and transformative dining experience.
“Saison is special in so many ways, from the beautiful dining room with exposed brick and taxidermy, facing an open kitchen with a hearth lined with copper pots, to the service that is focused on making a guest comfortable and excited throughout the whole menu,” explains Executive Chef Lee. “We do this by doing table side cooking and plating and by bringing unique products directly to the guest to help tell the story of how special the ingredients and techniques are. I think there is an energy about our experience that you can feel when you first sit down.”
Notably, and under Executive Chef Lee’s leadership, Saison reclaimed its place on the prestigious World’s 50 Best list, securing the 98th spot and standing as the sole Bay Area restaurant honored in the latest rankings.
“It is a tremendous honor to be mentioned on the extended World’s 50 Best List,” says Executive Chef Lee, who later tells us that it wasn’t necessarily one of their immediate goals, making the tremendous accolade quite the surprise. “I am extremely grateful that we are getting attention on the world stage and I am so happy that the team here at Saison gets the recognition for their hard work.”
As a proud native of San Francisco and a first-generation Chinese-American, Chef Lee welcomes the opportunity and responsibility to curate Saison’s innovative and dynamic menu. In doing so he seeks to reflect the complex history and broad essence of California cuisine, paying tribute to his heritage within the menu while preserving Saison’s legacy as one of the pioneering fine dining establishments in America that champions hearth-based cooking.
Being raised by immigrant parents only eating Chinese food fueled his enthusiasm for exploring new flavors and cuisines later in life. Much of his culinary influence comes from this very excitement he gets when he tries new foods whether it be the first time he had a Mexican cuisine or Soul Food or Southeast Asian food, he recalls. With that said he maintains that the Bay Area has always had so much culinary diversity to draw inspiration — from his background to the next restaurant opening its doors.
“I am very proud to be a native San Franciscan and also very proud of growing up as a first generation Chinese American,” continues Executive Chef Lee. “Chinese cuisine is still very intimidating to me so I take ideas and flavors that I think can apply to what we do. San Francisco and fine dining have been heavily influenced by many Asian cultures and you can see it reflected on Michelin Starred menus all around town.”
We chatted with Executive Chef Lee on how Saison has evolved, his heritage, fine dining culture and more. Here’s what he had to say.
Saison is back on the World’s 50 Best list at #98 — had getting back on this list been a goal?
It was always in the back of our heads that it would be really cool if we could be on that list, but with all the fantastic restaurants in the world doing such amazing things we knew it would be quite a challenge. So basically thank you to the World’s 50 Best organization for helping shine a light on what we’re doing. We continue to push our creativity daily, I believe in thoughtful change and want to make sure we are giving the guest an experience we are proud of every single day.
You’ve been with Saison Hospitality since 2019, in what ways have you seen Saison evolve?
Upon arriving in 2019, Saison was going through enormous changes. The culinary direction belonged to Chef Laurent Gras, who was one of the biggest reasons why I joined Saison. He was a chef I admired a lot and even more so after working with him. Growing pains during that transition were natural but we felt like the restaurant was starting to hit its stride.
When at the end of 2019 Chef Laurent departed and I got the opportunity to run the kitchen, the world stopped due to Covid. Then there was an adapting period of selling BBQ out of Angler, then meal kits, then outdoor dining, and eventually after a difficult year we were able to bring diners back into Saison. Although it was tough, it was an incredible opportunity for the team at Saison to work with Angler and Chef Paul Chung and get back to our roots.
Since then, we have put less effort on what Saison used to be or should be and instead turned our focus on what we WANT it to be. We are taking the ethos of working with local farmers, fishermen and women, and ranchers, utilizing open fire cooking, and taking it one step further.
Talk about redefining fine dining culture and what that means to you.
Behind the scenes we have also made it our goal to help redefine fine dining culture. It was important to me that we have a team that pulled from the same rope with the goal of being the best versions of ourselves. We want to push ourselves professionally while treating each other with respect.
In the kitchen, we are not just training great Chefs but more importantly great leaders that are accountable, firm yet compassionate, and who lead with integrity and by example. We want to create a job where everyone wakes up in the morning excited about the opportunity to get better and build something special.
What is it about Saison that has kept you on its team for this long?
I’ve been at Saison this long because I don’t feel like my job is done yet. I feel like we just hit the surface of what we can do. This year we got back on the extended World’s 50 Best list and were honored to become a member of Relais & Chateaux and Les Grandes Table du Monde. We are evolving daily; I want Saison to be a restaurant that is not only a great experience but a restaurant that inspires others in our industry to do great things.
What makes Saison stand out?
Our food is focused on getting the best local products and finding ways to highlight them in a precise, elevated manner. Wine also plays an integral part. Co-founder of Saison, Mark Bright, has done an extraordinary job building our wine program and my partner in crime Molly Greene, Beverage Director for Saison, has an amazing palate and is such a fun person to be around. Her pairings are so inventive, plus we have access to all of our Saison Winery bottles.
I have to say that sustainability and minimizing waste is also inherent to our concept. Our fermentation program ferments vegetables, bread trim, and meat trim, and we have courses where we are serving as many parts of a vegetable or animal as possible.
What informs your cooking style? What influences do you lean on when crafting new dishes?
I think my current cooking style takes the most influence from live fire cooking and the bounty of Northern California. That can mean many things whether it’s the products we get from farmers and fishermen and women, or the food we see being served all around San Francisco from Latin American to Asian influences. We try to create a menu that helps tell the story of the season and the terroir we are in.
How do you balance the task of honoring your heritage through the menu while upholding the legacy of being one of the pioneering fine dining establishments in America to embrace hearth-based cooking?
I think it’s a fine line to walk. There are times it is easy and there are times it can be very difficult. Oftentimes the comfort or casual food of a cuisine is what is often seen as the tastiest and most palatable to most guests, whereas in fine dining, refinement and elevation of technique and ingredients are a must.
I never try to force anything on our menu. Our research and development must come organically, which means no forcing a technique or a dish if it’s not just right. Luckily as Chefs like Jean Georges and Grey Kunz pioneered introducing Asian ingredients into fine dining kitchens, today we have an abundance of high quality ingredients that have the ability to add depth of flavor to most dishes.
I do try to use the flavor balance Chinese cuisine has, to help season some of our courses we subtly balance umami with a slight sweetness which you can see throughout Chinese and other Asian cuisines. We use techniques like infusing oils to help carry flavors through in a very bright and fresh way. When we make sauces instead of cooking them down and reducing them, we think about the aromatics we want and cook them until the flavors peak versus cooking for a thickness or viscosity.
I used to shy away from my Chinese heritage when making food because it was rare to see fine dining showcase Asian technique or ingredients, but thanks to some chefs like Corey Lee at Benu and Junghyn Park at Atomix, I have come to see it as another tool in my tool box.