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This Chef is Redefining Korean-American Food with a New Pop-Up Series

Updated: Apr 23, 2019

Jae Lee is using food to share the story of his family's struggle as immigrants to the U.S.

Jae Lee is a Korean-American chef who has been cooking in New York kitchens for over a decade. He’s now using all of his experience in a new Pop-up series called Him, meaning strength in Korean, to represent what it means to him to be a Korean-American chef. I had the pleasure of attending the third dinner in the series, a Korean Kamayan feast.

Here's a video featuring Lee's last pop-up, a Duck Roast Ssam:

The Feast

A Kamayan feast is a Filipino tradition in which everyone eats a meal served family-style on banana leaves. It’s a celebratory occasion that’s messy, fun, and most importantly, extremely delicious. Lee decided to put a Korean spin on this tradition because he “wanted to showcase the melting pot that New York City is” by combining multiple different cuisines while adding in his own personal touch. The dinners spanned two nights and were hosted in the LES bar Boys Don’t Cry.

The Food

I walked into the restaurant to be greeted by three long tables each covered in banana leaves piled high with huge mounds of rice. The rest of the diners and I patiently watched as Lee and his sous chefs carefully loaded the piles up with various meats, seafood, and vegetables. The aroma that soon filled the small space was absolutely incredible.

After what felt like hours of watching them prepare the feast, we took our seats and dug in. It initially felt odd eating with my hands, but after a while it became natural, just eating some delicious food while sharing a meal with the people around me. I particularly enjoyed the dry-aged washugyu galbi and the twice cooked adobo ribs that were fall-off-the-bone tender. The whole event really felt like a celebration.

Throughout the dinner, Lee was walking around talking with guests and sharing rounds of whiskey shots. I had the chance to speak with him about the differences between doing his own pop-up series and the large scale dining he was doing before. He explained that he had to focus so much more on all of the details. Working in a hotel, he explained, the budget was nearly endless, but he had to be much more conscious of what he bought and what he made. He also described the entire process as “humbling,” especially hand making and fermenting all of the kimchi, which I will say was extremely delicious. At the end of the meal, after bringing around some melon popsicles, each attendee got a postcard with a picture of Lee’s family from when they first immigrated to the US. It was clear that these pop-up dinners mean a lot to him and I encourage everyone to check them out.

Lee plans to continue hosting pop-up dinners but also is working on opening a restaurant by the end of next year. Make sure to catch the next event in the series, Korean and Vietnamese inspired brunch at Rice and Gold. You can find tickets here and stay tuned for updates on Lee’s Instagram.

Originally published by Spoon University.


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