This is part one of my interview with Tommy Lee, exec chef of Uncle; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
At 4:45 on a Saturday afternoon, a swarm of restless ramen geeks congregates around the door of Uncle, Tommy Lee's unassuming noodle bar in LoHi. By 5:15, fifteen minutes after the staff has turned the key to welcome the hive inside, the dining room is at a full buzz. The success of Uncle, which nabbed Westword's Best New Restaurant award in the Best of Denver 2013, still seems a little unsettling to Lee, who opened Uncle last August. "I'm a cook, not a chef, and I really have absolutely no idea what I'm doing," he announces while maneuvering his way through the open kitchen to check on his noodles and a huge stock pot boiling with whole chickens. Denver's food cognoscenti, however, appear to disagree with Lee's assessment of his skills.
But hearing Lee tell the story of how he went from being a counter guy collecting money to being the chef-owner of one of the city's most popular restaurants makes you wonder: Just how did he do it? Even Lee doesn't seem to know the answer, but he'll suggest that it all started with traveling. While Lee was born and raised in Denver, his parents are from Hong Kong, a "snobby food city," he says, "that's a big melting pot of cultures with the best of all cuisines." And Lee spent weeks and months at a time in Hong Kong, not to mention Europe, where he lolled away the days with his aunt and uncle in France, drinking ooh-la-la French wines and eating out whenever he could. "I grew up eating really, really good food and drinking great wines, and all of that kind of moved me along this career path," says Lee, whose first restaurant job was actually in Denver, at Peter's Chinese Cafe, a joint owned by another "uncle" who's not a blood relative but a lifelong friend. "It's a term of endearment title that the Chinese use to bestow respect upon their elders, even if they're not blood relatives," says Lee, who has a lot of "uncles" in his life.
At Peter's, Lee collected -- and counted -- money, but he recalls wandering back to the kitchen at every opportunity to see what was sizzling in the wok. "I'd fool around a little bit in the kitchen and mess around with the wok, but I wasn't real serious about cooking at the time," says Lee, who didn't really begin cooking until he moved to Atlanta for college. He was propelled, he remembers, by what he was watching on TV. "For the first time in my life, I had cable, and all of a sudden, I was hooked on the Food Network, especially Mario Batali, so I started cooking a lot of Italian food."
Lee came back to Denver during the summer holiday and worked banquets at McCormick's, "filling hotel pans with bell peppers for hours on end," he says. Eventually he was given more responsibilities and freedom, and when the chef gifted him with Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and Michael Ruhlman's Soul of a Chef, both of which pay homage to Thomas Keller, Lee found the nearest bookstore and got his hands on a copy of Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook. "I was so into that cookbook, and even did a dinner party based on six or seven of the recipes," recounts Lee, who then built himself a little gig on the side, doing private catering.
But once he graduated from college, business degree in hand, he started looking for a job where he could use it, only to find that he, like a lot of college graduates, couldn't find a position, either in a cubicle or, as it turned out, in a kitchen. "I ended up stuffing envelopes at a temp agency, then went backpacking for several months with some friends to try and get some perspective on what I was going to do with my life," says Lee. When he returned to Denver, he also landed back at Peter's for a short period of time, followed by a stint at the Park Tavern, where he managed the kitchen...for an equally short duration. "It's a bar, and food was always an afterthought, and even though we tried our best to make it better, it didn't go so well -- it wasn't fun at all -- but, hey, I learned how to make green chile," quips Lee, who ultimately took more than a year off to continue to re-evaluate his future. And it was during that reflective time away from the kitchen that he decided he wanted to open his own restaurant -- but first he needed to learn the ropes.
Thank the burrito gods for Chipotle. "I started really getting into Chipotle based on the business model of the concept: quick food with integrity," recalls Lee, who was initially hired as a kitchen manager before scaling the ladder to assistant general manager. "It was a great place to learn how to run a restaurant and business operations," he adds, noting that "the last year I was there, I started to get really serious about opening my own restaurant."
And he'd more or less determined the concept: a casual restaurant with high-quality food rooted in his Chinese upbringing -- a restaurant like Momofuku in New York. "I spent some time in New York and went to Momofuku three times in five days, and it was the best example I'd seen of modernizing the kind of food I grew up with, and I felt like something like that could work in Denver," Lee points out.
He left Chipotle after two and half years to concentrate on his plan, and when a real-estate broker revealed that the LoHi space -- a vacant storefront with steel bars that Lee had driven by dozens of times -- was available, he grabbed it, signing the lease on his birthday. "It's like it was meant to be," muses Lee, who in the following interview divulges his "Oh, crap!" moment, weighs in on stinky tofu and admits that he's not above troffing through the fried chicken at KFC.
How do you describe your food? Simple and satisfying dishes based on traditional flavors and ideas with a twist.
Ten words to describe you: Detailed, pessimistic, quiet, calculating, even-keeled, inquisitive, loyal, and currently very tired.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love garlic, acidity and spice, probably because I grew up Chinese. Every dish has garlic, my dad loves spicy foods, and many Cantonese dishes go well with a drizzle of Chinese red vinegar. Still, it's a flavor profile that lends itself to many cuisines, regardless of the ingredients.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I could spend all day at Williams-Sonoma playing with new toys, but my favorite tools are a Kunz spoon and a nice French steel pan. My other obsession is wok spoons, which are perfect for scooping, measuring and stirring. I'm still looking for the perfect wok spoon.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I love Palisade peaches and Olathe corn. Luckily, they're readily available almost anywhere when they're in season.
One ingredient that you won't touch: Extra-firm tofu. It gives tofu a bad name, and it's probably why most people dislike tofu in the first place.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd love to see a real yakitori restaurant in Denver. I've really gotten into ramen, and yakitori, with its wood-fired grills, goes with my idea of traditional Japanese food. Yakitori is the extension of ramen for me.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Yelp. For the most part, it's an uncontrolled platform for people who want to complain. If you have a complaint, tell the restaurant about it while you're there. That said, I think most people use Yelp for restaurant contact information rather than determining where to actually eat. When I go out to eat, I base my decisions on where my friends suggest I go or what I read on the food blogs that I respect.
One food you detest: I'm not the biggest fan of stinky tofu, which permeates the streets of many Chinese cities and smells like burning, rotting garbage. I can't imagine cooking with it or eating it. On the other hand, it's nostalgic. One whiff, and I know I'm back in Hong Kong.
One food you can't live without: Fried chicken -- and for the record, I'm not a fried-chicken snob, but it's the ultimate comfort food, and almost every cuisine has some version of it, which makes the flavors endless. Heck, it even tastes good cold. I'd crush a bucket of KFC Original by myself if no one was watching.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: When some friends and I backpacked through Europe after college, we ended up in Cinque Terre for a few days. I can't remember how we found it, but there was this small, family-owned restaurant on the garden level of some house, and it was there that I ate the best plate of spaghetti and shellfish I've ever had. The pasta was perfectly al dente and the condimento was, for lack of a better phrase, the essence of the sea. The restaurant was absolutely unassuming and just like being in someone's home. We were the only party there, and the family was watching soccer on TV while they served us dinner. It made me feel like I was truly living on the Italian coast. After dinner, we got way too drunk off jugs of wine and ended up swimming in the Ligurian Sea.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: When I go out, eight of every ten times, I'm probably at Star Kitchen. It's my staple meal and reminds me of the food I grew up eating. It's awesome every single time, and the owners and staff are super-friendly and playful in that aggressive, fast-paced-Chinese-restaurant kind of way. Some of my other staples are Fuel and the Universal for brunch; Sushi Den and Sushi Sasa for raw fish; Steuben's for fried chicken and lobster rolls; Pizzeria Locale; Masterpiece Deli; Pho Duy; Las Caras and Highland Tap. Recently, I've had good meals at the Squeaky Bean and Il Posto, and I'm really looking forward to trying Old Major, Amerigo and Oak at Fourteenth.
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Favorite cheap eat in Denver: Pho. For a mid-sized city, we have an amazing number of really good pho restaurants, including Pho 96 and Pho Duy. It's an extremely satisfying meal and always leaves me in a weird state of euphoria afterwards. Maybe it's all the MSG?
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I wish the investors who have enough money to open restaurants would take a little more risk and open more progressive establishments with independent chefs. It's disappointing that there are all these great cooks and chefs who would die to open a place of their own, yet we see a new burger chain pop up every month. I'm extremely lucky to have been able to open my own restaurant, and I wish the chefs in Denver who are way more talented than I am could be given that opportunity as well. We'd see a more abundant and diverse food scene if the talent in this city was given the means and control to do what they wanted. Granted, it's wishful thinking, and investors are in it to make money, but I think Denver has developed a pretty good clientele to support more ambitious or different concepts.
What's your biggest pet peeve? I hate dirty towels lying around at the end of the night. After everyone leaves, I'm always putting dirty towels in the laundry bin.
What piece of advice would you give to a young chef? Be naive and humble. You can learn something from everyone, no matter what their background is in this industry.