Interview: Debbie Lee of Ahn-Joo
Known for a unique culinary perspective that reflects her Korean roots as well as her Southern upbringing, Chef Debbie Lee is a master of the unexpected. If you didn’t catch her on Season 5 of “The Next Food Network Star,” you’re in luck. The skilled and sassy chef will be returning to Food Network for a special five-episode season of “Chopped,” premiering on Sunday, March 6th, where she’ll be competing against other finalists from “The Next Food Network Star.” You don’t want to miss it.
Speaking of stars, Chef Lee’s is on the rise. The former Hollywood caterer and restaurant consultant debuted her latest food venture in 2010: Ahn-Joo, the Korean “pub grub” food truck, is currently making the rounds in LA. But that’s not all—a brick-and-mortar has been secured and Chef Lee’s first restaurant is coming soon. And to top off the culinary trifecta of reality TV show gold, a food truck and a restaurant? Why, Chef Lee’s first cookbook, of course. You can try to keep up with her on Twitter @SeoultoSeoul and @AhnJooLA.
Give us the quick version of how you got to where you are now.
Basically it was by default. A few years back, a publicist friend of mine asked me to do some cooking demos for a couple of local TV stations for a food producer she repped. Got some great feedback, and as a joke, I said maybe I should go try out for “The Next Food Network Star.” Low and behold, casting was the following week. I went with no expectations. Thought it would be a great story to tell my girlfriends over cocktails. One thing led to another and the rest is history.
Who inspires you in the culinary world, and why?
God, there are so many amazing chefs who make me want to create each and every day. I could seriously watch Sursur Lee for hours in a kitchen. I also am a big fan of Marcus Samuelsson. Last but not least, Neil Perry is probably one of the chefs who always inspires me to pay homage to the integrity of the ingredients. And I can’t forget Anita Lo. She is what I strive to become each and every day. She is a master, and the fact that she’s an Asian female chef is an extra bonus.
Your grandmother had a strong influence on you and your love of cooking. Tell us about a favorite food-related memory.
I would have to say when she first introduced me to making kimchee. She sat me on the kitchen floor, gave me a little bowl of salt, a head of Napa [cabbage], and a plastic bowl. She taught me the art of salting and preparing the cabbage for the pickling. She did it so gracefully and exact. I will never forget it.
You’ve said your goal on “The Next Food Network Star” was to teach people “not to be afraid of Asian food.” Explain!
My goal has always been to demystify the notion that Asian food takes forever to prepare and is so foreign. We all have different versions of skewers, dumplings and even fried chicken in every culture. I’m just here to break it down in simple terms.
What did you learn from being on the show?
God what did I not learn?! LOL. I would have to say I learned to always be proud of who you are and stand by your convictions. That is what truly makes each of us unique.
On your exit from “The Next Food Network Star,” you said that you were born to cook on TV. Do you still feel that way? What do you love about it?
Absolutely! I feel TV is a great medium to share your food and culture in such a short time. It’s amazing how many different people you can reach and affect in a five-minute demo. I get tons of emails on a daily basis from all over the world who watched me make a certain dish and was inspired. That, to me, is the power of food!
You’re about to be on Food Network again, for “Chopped All-Stars.” Can you tell us who you’ll be competing against?
Yes, we will be starting the show off representing “The Next Food Network Star” finalists. I got to cook with Michael Proietti (my food luva), Lisa Garza (amazing!), and Brad Sorenson (such a great young talent!).
How do you feel about going back? Do you have a strategy?
It’s great to be back. I am just keeping it real and cooking from the heart. I think that is always the best strategy.
Any aspirations to host your own cooking show in the future? Do tell!
I would love to have my own cooking show. I’m what you would call the girl who is always outside of the box. So I think there would be a lot of traveling involved. Be a little more on the street side.
What can we expect from the cookbook you’re working on now?
Wish I could cook and share, but you will have to wait. I’m sure you will hear about it very soon.
You launched Ahn-Joo last summer. How’s it going?
The food truck has been an amazing experience. It is quite phenomenal how many k-grubbers will line up for some Korean Fried Chicken! I feel truly blessed that I have had such loyalty and support from the LA community. What started out as a part-time thing has blossomed into a bonafide business.
What do you offer that’s most representative of your culinary point of view?
I would say my Korean Nachos.
What’s the biggest challenge you face with Ahn-Joo?
Keeping up with the demand! LOL. Especially during high season…had no idea I could sell 500 pounds of fried chicken a week.
Do you have plans to open a restaurant someday?
You will be hearing the news shortly. We finally landed the perfect spot and are working away to getting it opened in time.
What other projects are you working on right now that you can tell us about?
Right now I’m working on getting the restaurant opened before fall. So you could say I’m keeping busy.
What’s your day-to-day life like now?
Wake up early, answer my emails from back East, and then start prepping for the day on the truck. Come back and then I write ’til I am about to pass out.
What’s the best way to keep up with you?
Definitely Twitter. I admit I am not a social media pro but I try to keep up with the Joneses.
Do you have plans to do any more pop-ups like you did with Seoul Town Tapas at Breadbar in LA?
As of this time, I am pretty busy just cooking for my own business. But you never know!
What are a few of your favorite spots to eat in LA and beyond?
I love SGV [San Gabriel Valley] and getting me some dumplings and soup noodles. Also, when I’m downtown, I can’t pass up a grougère from Corkbar.
Any parting words of advice for aspiring Food Network stars?
Be who you are. Don’t try to fit a part. Everyone has a unique story. Don’t be afraid to share it!