Cafe Society

Tommy Lee, exec chef of Uncle, on yakitori, Yelp and stinky tofu

Page 2 of 4

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson

Latest Stories