Chef Jinhee Lee shares how she found her calling
Hotel Arts sous chef respects mother's Korean cooking traditions, but does it her own way
Chef Jinhee Lee’s mother didn’t know Jinhee was a chef until last year when she came from South Korea to visit.
At the time, Jinhee was a sous chef at Raw Bar by Duncan Ly at Hotel Arts. She decided it was time to confess she had abandoned her accounting course at SAIT.
Her kitchen full of cookbooks and chef’s knives gave her away, she says.
Jinhee’s 17-hour school days in South Korea prepared her for long shifts in the kitchen, and for the task of learning how to cook in a foreign language, using unfamiliar French cooking terms and techniques.
In high school, she studied hard to earn her way into a reputable university — Inha, a private research university located in Incheon, South Korea, where she majored in chemistry for four years. After graduating, she landed a laboratory job with a big cosmetics company, but it was a male-dominated environment so she wound up doing the photocopying and fetching coffee.
Jinhee’s mother wanted her daughter to have a proper office job — something clean and neat and safe — and so Jinhee left the lab and became a kindergarten ESL teacher for a few years.
“I realized I needed to learn the language more, so I came to Canada,” Jinhee told me. “And then I realized I wanted to stay here and learn the culture more.”
From accounting to culinary arts
She chose an accounting course at SAIT, but found it equally uninspiring. One day she was offered the opportunity to spend a day touring the campus, learning about which other courses were available. Jinhee was riveted when she popped into the kitchen as chef instructor Colin Maxwell was demonstrating a hollandaise sauce, so decided to make the switch.
“At the time, I got goosebumps,” she remembers, describing how the chef used fresh lemon juice and paprika to create the classic sauce. It was an intensive course, but she loved it — thanks in big part to the supportive instructors in the Culinary Arts program.
“When I studied, I did exactly what they wanted me to do,” Jinhee said.“They showed me how to do something, and I do it.”
But she never forgot what she learned during her childhood.
“All the times I was watching my mom cooking ... I know the flavour. I know the balance of Asian food. Now here, I’m learning more, applying my mother’s flavour to my cooking.
"When I grew up, everything was well done, all the sauce was reduced,” she said, describing her mom’s habit of overcooking everything. “Now I learned all these new techniques from the best, and I apply these techniques to my mom’s flavours.”
But she didn’t tell her mother she had made the switch.
Mother accepted Jinhee's career change
“I was afraid of letting her down,” Jinhee told me, recalling the time her brother left his job as an engineer to be a chef for a few years — something her mother didn’t approve of.
Her dad was more supportive, but her mother “wanted me to work in an office, to wear a suit and work on the computer. I wanted to be at the top before I told her.”
After SAIT, Jinhee worked at Borgo, gaining valuable kitchen experience before finding her groove at Raw Bar alongside Chef Duncan Ly. He oversees Yellow Door Bistro, Raw Bar and the Kensington Riverside Inn. Ly has also led his team to six consecutive wins at the Gold Medal Plates.
Last year, when Jinhee fessed up and told her mom. She was upset, but has since accepted Jinhee’s position and now regularly sends her recipes from Korea, urging her to try them. Recently she sent a recipe for curried kimchi, telling Jinhee it was the next big thing. But Jinhee is more respectful of ingredients. She likes to be creative, but she doesn’t like combining foods for the sake of being “out there” — it has to work.
“I don’t like fusion,” she said. “Sometimes dishes lose their origin and authenticity.
"People think things mixed together is fusion. To me, because I know the characteristics of the ingredients, I combine them and know what works. Putting wasabi in something isn’t fusion. Respect tradition first. Respect the flavour. I don’t want to mess around. I combine ingredients to help develop the flavours, not confuse them.”
At Raw Bar, Jinhee is in her element, drawing on her Korean background, pairing ingredients and flavours the way her mother did. She loves working with seafood, and is even inspired by our produce.
“Here, apples and carrots are so good. Asian carrots are shorter and fatter. Here, they’re sweeter with more flavour.”
She says Calgary is a great place to be.
“There are a lot of talented chefs, people are energetic and passionate about food.”
She speaks fondly of collaborating with other chefs in the city, particularly Chef Roy Oh of Anju, who she refers to as her brother.
With a similar Korean background “he understands the mother’s food, Korean mom’s food,” she says. “His flavour reminds me of my mom.”
When she’s homesick, she visits Roy for a good meal.
“My flavours are a little bit shyer,” she said. “He sticks to more traditional Korean ingredients, uses Korean chili powders and pastes. My food is a different balance — it’s more girly.”
Jinhee’s mom still hasn’t eaten at the restaurant. She says she’ll come back and eat once Jinhee is “at the top.”
But Jinhee was recently promoted to Chef du Cuisine at Raw Bar, in charge of running the kitchen and developing new dishes. She’s hoping that next time her mom comes to visit, she’ll also come to eat.