Now Or Never

How a Korean-Canadian connected with his roots by working at his family's restaurant

Jason Lee and his mother Ok Re Lee manage Korean Village Restaurant together. But growing up, Jason never really had a close relationship with his family.

Growing up, Jason Lee wasn’t always proud of his heritage and his family’s business

Jason Lee (right) and his mother, Ok Re Lee, manage Korean Village Restaurant in downtown Toronto together. (Samantha Lui/CBC Radio)

Managing a business with a parent isn't always easy, but Jason Lee says the way to cope with it is to "just pick your battles."

As the general manager of Korean Village Restaurant in downtown Toronto, Lee, 38, works with his mother Ok Re Lee to serve authentic Korean cuisine.

Over the past 11 years, Lee, says he has tried to convince his mother to make small changes to the business.

They disagree on everything from the size of the restaurant's menu to the way meat is cooked on the grill — Lee prefers it medium rare, but his mother insists on well-done.

She also favours handwriting the restaurant's bills, instead of switching over to an electronic point-of-sale system.

However, Lee says there's no convincing his mom.

"Working with my mother's challenging, because she's set in her ways. She's very stubborn," he said in an interview with Now or Never.

"But at the same time, I respect the fact that she's the owner, she's the president, she's the reason why we're all here."

Jason Lee says he has tried to convince his mother to switch to an electronic system when it comes to restaurant bills, but she insists on writing them out by hand. (Samantha Lui/CBC Radio)

Despite their disagreements, Lee says it's important to help maintain his parents' legacy through the restaurant.

Lee's parents opened Korean Village Restaurant 40 years ago after they immigrated to Canada. It remains one of the oldest businesses in Toronto's Koreatown neighbourhood.

"It's a way of honouring them, it's a way of remembering them and not forgetting what they've done," Lee said.

Rejection of Korean identity growing up

However, Lee admits he wasn't always proud of his Korean heritage, which resulted in a rocky relationship with his parents.

"Growing up, I never assumed I was Korean. I always assumed I was Canadian, so that part of me was never an interest until later on in my life," he said.

"I couldn't speak Korean, read Korean, understand Korean [or] write Korean growing up, but that changed."

As a child, Lee and his brother would come to the restaurant after school and help out with the business by peeling potatoes, washing the dishes and taking out the trash.

"We were always involved in the restaurant. We were always here physically," Lee said.

Jason Lee cooks bulgogi on a grill. He says when it comes to cooking meat, he disagrees with his mother's methods. (Samantha Lui/CBC Radio)

Seeing his parents work up to 18 hours a day to run the business, Lee decided he wanted to carve out his own life and separate himself from his family and the restaurant.

As a teen, he skipped school and hung out with the wrong group of people. That eventually caused a rift between him and his parents. And at the age of 16, Lee's mother kicked him out of the family home.

Lee said this experience was humbling for him, as he had to learn how to live independently and support himself.

It was only after he finished college in Hamilton, Ont., that his mother asked him to come back and help at the restaurant.

Seeing that his father was contemplating retirement at the time, Lee felt it was time to repair his relationship with his parents.

Now years later, Lee says he couldn't be prouder to be Korean-Canadian and to work at the restaurant.

Over 40 years, Korean Village restaurant has attracted several celebrities of Korean descent, including Canadian Sandra Oh. Ok Re Lee, right, likes to put up photos she's taken with famous people around the restaurant. (Samantha Lui/CBC Radio)

'Deeper understanding of my parents'

Since then, Lee has learned to speak Korean, and gives tours around Koreatown, teaching people about the history of the neighbourhood.

More importantly, he says he now understands the sacrifices his parents made in order to provide for the family.

"I have a deeper understanding of my parents and where they're from and what they've been through. It's nice knowing that we have that relationship again."

The same can be said for Ok Re Lee, who's now in her 70s. When asked about her son, she says seeing him working at the restaurant makes her comfortable and "gives her a sense of ease."

"She sees how much I care about the people that come here and that I genuinely try to address people's needs and try to really help people and give people a great time," Lee said, translating for his mother.

"She's glad whenever I'm here and she's thankful that I'm helping out."

Written and produced by Samantha Lui.