Chef Jae Lee of Nowon: A Very Spicy Culinary Career
Something we’re particularly proud of at Pearl River Mart Foods (well, besides everything) is our collection of specialty chili oils and sauces. Not only is each jar packed with deliciousness, they’re from local restaurants and independent purveyors, each with an interesting story. One of our newest comes from chef Jae Lee of Nowon, a Korean-inspired eatery in the East Village. We first heard about Jae through a rave review of his burger pop-up, Him (that’s Korean for “strength”), in the Black Emperor bar. Then when we learned he had worked with Pearl River friend Dale Talde, it was like a match made in foodie heaven.
We had the chance to chat with Jae about his culinary career, what it’s been like as a small business owner during the pandemic, his go-to comfort foods, and more.
Tell me about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Seoul, South Korea. More precisely the Nowon district, which is what my restaurant is named after. I had a pretty good childhood. Lots of rollerblading and playing with neighborhood friends.
One day my family visited New York. My mom had an older sister here. We loved America and decided to move here the next year. We moved around a lot. Jamaica, Queens for one year. Flushing for three years. Then finally Hicksville in Long Island, which is where my parents live now.
How did you get into cooking?
I graduated from high school in Hicksville, then went to Hunter College in Manhattan. I decided to move closer to school and that’s when I fell in love with cooking. My dad forced me to get a job so I could pay own rent. “You’re a man now,” he said. He had a friend who owned a ramen shop. That’s when I started cooking at 18 years old.
At first I didn’t want to be a chef. I was just paying the rent and hoping to get into a nursing program. But then I failed chemistry and had to decide what to do. Try again or decide on a different major. I ended up transferring to City Tech. They have a hospitality management program. I didn’t go to private schools like ICE or CIA because I was illegal at the time and couldn’t get loans or financial aid.
How did your culinary career go after that?
When I was working at the ramen shop, I was getting paid under the table. But eventually I got my work permit and was able to get paid with checks. Then I moved to another restaurant, Michael’s, in midtown. That’s when I really started to learn about cooking, using ingredients like chives and shallots which I had never seen before as a Korean American kid. The rest is history. I just stuck with it and worked around. Every year and a half or so I changed jobs. I would always reach a point where I felt like I had learned a lot and it was time to move on.
In 2013 I landed job as the junior sous chef at the Iron Chef restaurant, Morimoto. I was promoted to executive sous chef within a year. It helped that I could speak English and helped train staff. The executive chef was skillfully very talented but communication was difficult for him. There was a language barrier. They relied on me a lot for communication.
From there I left and worked at other restaurants. I got offered the executive chef position at Momosan, which I gladly accepted. I opened that one. Two years later, I wanted to explore and tackle more challenges in my culinary career. I met Dale Talde and became the executive chef at his restaurant Rice and Gold at 50 Bowery. I also oversaw food operations for the hotel including breakfast, in-room dining, the rooftop bar, and private events. After two years, I started thinking about quitting and trying my own thing. And my girlfriend Rebecca encouraged me to do that. I had just turned 30 — it seemed like a good time to try. But at the same time I thought, My life is so comfortable right now. I have a good salary, good benefits, vacation days, health insurance. I only work five days a week, Monday through Friday. Should I be satisfied or try something new?
I decided to just quit. It was February of 2019. I started doing popups until the end of October 2019. It was really difficult at first. Then I signed up to do a six-month popup at Black Emperor Bar. Because of a good review at Gothamist, it really took off. What started as eight burgers a night became 200 a night. That gave me the confidence to open Nowon.
You said you never wanted to be a chef, but did you grow up with people who liked to cook?
My grandma from my mom’s side owned a successful restaurant in Korea. And my mom also had a small restaurant there. Plus as a kid, I loved to eat. Our whole family eats so much. My dad loves to eat and drink. My brother and I love to eat. But I wasn’t interested in cooking, not even instant ramen for myself. I used to boss my younger brother to do it. [Laughs]
What made you change your mind?
When I was cooking at the ramen shop and saw the happy faces. I realized the work I had done had made people happy, which made me feel so good. My mind shifted then. Also in 2010, I worked at Tabla. The chef’s philosophy for food was on a whole other level. I learned to have more respect for ingredients, to use them without waste. If we peeled a carrot, we kept the peel to add to stock. We didn’t waste anything because we had respect for the ingredients.
How did your parents feel about your career choice?
In the beginning they hated it. My dad wanted me to become an airplane mechanic. He wanted me to get a job that was secure. My mom was more like, “Try it if you want to try it.” When I became an executive chef for Iron Chef Morimoto, then my dad was like, “Hey you’re really moving up!” That showed real leadership skills to him. He thought why would someone trust my son to lead if he didn’t have those skills?
How has it been like as a small business owner these past several months?
It’s been very, very difficult. We opened late November in 2019. We were open for three and a half months before we had to close because of the pandemic. In March, who knew how long this would last. I thought two weeks but that was not the case.
It’s been challenging trying to pivot the restaurant in different ways. When we closed in March, we decided to open back up on April 15. I didn’t want to wait for a government handout. I wanted to just get out there and try. My cousin agreed to help. After we reopened, we reached out to different organizations so that we could serve a greater purpose. The most important one was Heart of Dinner. We partnered with them for five months [delivering meals to housebound seniors]. This sparked a new passion for me and gave me more of a drive to keep operating.
Then the weather warmed up. We had outdoor dining and indoor dining again at 25%. It was busy again. But then the weather got colder, the second wave came, and everything changed again. This year we decided to temporarily close beginning Jan. 1 with plans of reopening the first or second week of February. We’re waiting until the cold weather passes us.
I think people are looking for comfort a lot nowadays, including with food. What’s your go-to choice for comfort food?
Jajangmyeon. Or a chicken cutlet sandwich from a deli. Or chicken over rice from Halal Guys. Or General Tso’s chicken with fried rice. I never crave ice cream or anything sweet. It’s always savory or salty foods for me.
What’s your favorite dish that you serve now at Nowon?
My favorite always has to be my double cheeseburger. It’s dried steak from Pat LaFreida. Served on sesame bun with no preservatives. Freshly baked. With American cheese. And the sauce is kimchi mayo.
I understand that Pearl River Mart Foods will be the first retail space to carry your chili oil. What makes PRMF a good match?
Pearl River is such an iconic brand. It represents the community of Chinatown, the underserved community. When I was at Tribeca Canvas in Tribeca, it wasn’t far from Pearl River. When I worked in Chinatown, that was also near the store. I think Pearl River has a deep understanding of what community stands for.
How would you describe Nowon’s chili oil? How can people use it?
It’s crafted to not overpower and overwhelm your palate. Dried chiles don’t necessarily have to be super spicy. Nowon’s is a finishing oil that's packed with savory chili flavor that adds umami and depth to many dishes. I would recommend people try it on rice, pasta, sandwiches, pizza — and even vanilla ice cream.
What would you choose for your last meal on earth?
My mom’s’ kimchi jjigae.
What's a food city you've been dreaming of visiting/returning to?
I’ve been dreaming of going to Japan. I’ve never been. I want to go back to Mexico City. Rebecca and I went right before opening Nowon. The food was just amazing. That’s the first place I’ve been to when I thought, I just have to come back.
What’s something your obsessed with right now? That you tell people you have to eat, read, watch, listen to this?
I recently became obsessed with this restaurant in Chinatown, Deluxe Green Bo. It has this Shanghainese wonton soup. They put seaweed in it so it tastes like a cross between Korean and Chinese soup. It’s really good.Hungry for more? Check out our specialty sauce collection. You can also learn more about Pearl River Mart Foods and read our other entrepreneur interviews.