Chef Jack Lee
“You must have Passion, Dedication and Persistence”- Chef Jack Lee
I would like to begin by thanking Chef Lee for taking the time out of his schedule to answer a few questions about his dazzling work and exciting career as a celebrity Chef for the re-launch of my T.B.N Interviews segment.
The Black Nouveau is pleased to introduce Celebrity Chef Jack Lee.
Welcome Mr. Lee, I am honored to speak with you today….
TBN: Lets begin with your love of food, what sparked your fascination with it? Also share with us a little about yourself and your background. How did the Asian/French fusion style flourish into your trademark?
Chef Lee: I see food very differently. I want to honor each ingredient’s natural properties. I want to enhance the unique textures and colors. I believe the food we consume should be as much of a treat for the eyes as it is for the palate. I love dishes to be full of flavor, color and dimension so that you get drawn into each bite. Every bite should be a meaningful, lasting memory.
I came to the US from Vietnam when I was only 10 years old. I always loved food but at such a young age, I didn’t understand it as a career option. I watched the TV show “Three’s Company” to learn English and I loved how funny Jack Tripper was. When I saw him become a chef, I realized I could become a chef, too. It became my job to cook for my entire family and eventually I started working in kitchens.
As I learned more, I realized I wanted to combine Eastern and Western culinary concepts. I drew inspiration from street food of the Far East and merged it with the elegant plating and presentation of French cuisine. This Asian French technique has become my signature style and I’m always looking at ways to elevate the beauty as well as the flavors of food.
TBN: You are known for creating vibrant and visually appealing dishes that are equally delicious, how important is the presentation to you? How important is color?
Chef Lee: I believe people eat with their eyes first, so good plating presentation is inviting the palate of that taster. It makes the eater anticipate and fantasize about the culinary adventure they will have with forthcoming meal. Color enhances the taste, since we, as humans, use color to tell us about nutrition and if something is yummy.
Most people prefer eating vegetables that look green and crisp rather than yellowish-green and limp. The second option means all the nutrients have been cooked out and it won’t be fulfilling to eat. It may not be at the front of the brain, but on a deep level we all know that delicious food has certain vibrancy to it.
My presentation centers on five components: high quality protein that will look sexy on the plate, super healthy carb, organic vibrant vegetables, amazing sauce with depth of flavor that embraces the tongue, and beautifully designed garnish. Put all of that together on one plate and it practically dances before your eyes. It’s like food porn.
TBN: How does the inspiration process work for you? When you cook for your clients, many of whom have very high taste levels (Oprah Winfrey, Charlize Theron, Hilary Swank a few among a long list of illustrious names) is there a consultation process? Is a there a balance between what you wish to convey with your dishes, and what the client is requesting?
Chef Lee: Everyone tastes food differently, and a lot can be based on a person’s mood. When you’re in a blissful mood everything tastes good, similarly, when you’re depressed you don’t have appetite. So, I first start thinking about the emotional response I want the taster to have. I deal with clients that don’t just appreciate the Wow Factor, they demand it, so the food needs to excite and even seduce the eater. That’s the main balance that has to be met between myself and the client. This is also where colors and enhancement of the ingredient’s natural beauty starts to come in. It’s the first level of inspiration.
I also get inspired by the people whom I cook for. I often make a plate based on some one’s individual persona. I’ve even named these dishes after the person that inspired the dish. It might start with their favorite type of protein or vegetable, or be based on an item of clothing they wear, or be a place they love to travel. This personalize’s the culinary experience even more.
Chef Lee & Rebbie Jackson
Chef Lee & Charlize Theron
Chef Lee & Quincy Jones
All of this lets me use food as my art and outward expression of my voice and vision.
TBN: What was it like when you began your tenure as The Banquet Chef at the prestigious and legendary, Hotel Bel Air?
Chef Lee: I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work at a Five Star, Five Diamond hotel where we are trained to create gourmet cuisine: Presentation, Authenticity, and Flavors. The training process was hard and intense… and long hours of making garnishes. You have to have the passion in the kitchen or it won’t work. The dispassionate fail quickly in a kitchen like that.
TBN: What advice would you give aspiring culinary students with similar career aspirations?
Chef Lee: You must have Passion, Dedication and Persistence.
I applied to work with esteemed Executive Chef Humberto Contreras. I just wanted to learn from him. At first, he denied me, many times, thinking I didn’t have what it takes. I kept coming back til he finally gave up and started to see my passion and my dedication in culinary arts.
Then, I volunteered at Bel Air for a full year making garnishes 10 hours a day. It wasn’t easy for me, everyone asked me to quit and go home. It would have been so easy just to walk away but I kept on fighting to stay and believing that all the hard work will pay off. Which it did. I was hired and eventually became the Banquet Chef of Hotel Bel Air and that was the turning point of my career as a chef.
TBN: Lastly, where do you see yourself in your current career path? What goals would you like to accomplish? What dreams have you always hoped to achieve?
Chef Lee: My first day at CSCA (California School of Culinary Art) I dreamed of being on Food Network one day and I recently served as a guest judge for this season’s finale of “Rachael vs Guy: Kids Cook-off.” I’m also on a forthcoming episode of Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” which will air on October 27, 2013. So, many of my dreams are materializing.
I just wish to share my cooking passion and spread the love and food gospel to the World.
Thank you for your time today Chef Lee, it has been an absolute pleasure speaking with one of Hollywood’s most talented and esteemed Chefs.
Be sure to tune into Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” airing October 27th.
I would like to sincerely thank Ms Joy Donnell at Do It in Public Los Angeles for making this interview possible.