Growing up in Korea, Jinhee Lee recalls her father working long hours, and how they would look forward to payday when he would bring home fried chicken as a treat for the family.
As she was growing up, she was expected to be a nurse, and so studied hard to get to university and get her degree, and started out working for a cosmetic company, but she soon discovered making coffee and photocopying wasn’t for her. Eventually, some friends persuaded her to try teaching English to young children, and this is what brought her to Calgary.
Looking for her path, Lee started the accounting program at SAIT, again finding it wasn’t for her, and ultimately, knowing that her mother might not approve, she took a chance on cooking. It was tough learning a new food culture as well as having to understand French culinary terms, but Lee’s a tough cookie and eventually, with the help of instructor, Simon Dunn, she landed a job in the kitchens at Hotel Arts. Working very long hours and in every department was good training for Lee, especially working with her mentor, Duncan Ly.
“When I was in Korea I wanted to stay, but when I came back I feel like Calgary's my hometown."
Rising fast in the culinary world, Lee was winning competitions, appearing in magazines, and when the opportunity arose to join Ly when he decided to open Foreign Concept - she leapt at the chance. She was creating menus, hiring people, but her mother was still none the wiser until she visited – and was not happy.
Lee persevered, working very long hours and loving it, but she was getting worn out from the long restaurant hours and need a break. Top Chef Canada called, and even though she hated speaking in public, Ly persuaded her to go for it and she passed the audition. It was stressful for Lee and she did well, but something had to give, and she went back to Korea for a break.
But even when she was there, she was thinking about food all the time, making menus and trying to decide if being a chef was still part of her plan. But some Calgary investors had other ideas, and with Ly’s help, eventually persuaded Lee back to Calgary, into undertaking The Wall Of Chefs, and opening her own fried chicken restaurant.
“When I was in Korea I wanted to stay, but when I came back I feel like Calgary's my hometown,” she says. “I feel so blessed with all the support, love, and care from people.”
What bottle is Lee keeping for a special occasion?
By late 2016, Foreign Concept was under construction, and Lee was to compete in Gold Medal Plates. But there was no kitchen yet, and apart from Vintage Chophouse’s help in using theirs, she prepared dishes for 680 people at home. With no expectation of success, she was amazed to win - but it meant making 1,500 plates for the Canadian Culinary Championship in February 2017.
With the restaurant open and very busy, it was hard for Lee and her sous, Duncan Ly, to leave, but they prepped as much as possible and left, with tempers running high as they worried about leaving Foreign Concept and stressing over the competition.
They won People’s Choice, but there’s a strange phenomenon where chefs that win People’s Choice never win overall, as had happened to Ly before when to everyone’s surprise he took Silver instead of Gold.
Then two deductions: 10 percent because someone tried to help, and another for using her own pepper mill. One point makes all the difference, and they were disappointed listening to the results – not Bronze, not Silver… but gold! Tears flowed from both chefs.
A customer came in having followed the contest and cried too when they won, and presented Lee with a bottle of Dom Perignon. Lee is so grateful for Ly’s help and support that she wants to pay it forward and help a younger chef in the same way. At Jin Bar, Chef Hyungjae Lim is Lee’s right hand man, and she’s decided to give him the bottle if and when he opens his own restaurant.