Chef Jack Lee Opens Up:
Talks His Creative Process, Celebrity Clientele, Food Trends And Even American Idol
By Amber Topping
Food is art, just ask celebrity Chef Jack Lee. In a recent conversation with Mr. Lee, he explained the individual creative process he undertakes in designing a meal with the language and passion any artist would use to describe a painting. “I always believe people often eat with the eyes first.” So what then constitutes a good planning presentation? According to Jack, it must be “inviting to the palate of that taster. And then color. Colors also play a key role in food by enhancing the taste and appealing to the eye to eat.”
For instance, when Jack puts together an event for a client, he first makes sure to talk to them about what they’re trying to accomplish for that particular occasion like whether or not they have a special theme. He then discusses what kind of protein or any other ingredients they prefer to use. From there his creative artistry kicks in, claiming: “I…use my expertise by arranging, using different colors and plating; make it a very good presentation for that particular dish. And that makes the meal more meaningful for every bite.” Warm, funny and well spoken, Chef Jack Lee has cooked for celebrities like Clint Eastwood, Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey and more. A gifted visual artist, as well as being able to make the food tasty to the palate with his signature Asian French style, Mr. Lee has food collections which you can see in photo galleries on his website or even in videos he shares on YouTube. From “My True Colors” to “Beyond the Seven Seas,” his food collections are presented like photos in an art gallery. Mr. Lee, a graduate from the California School of Culinary Arts and the Le Cordon Bleu program, was eventually led to the prestigious position as The Banquet Chef at Hotel Bel Air. From there his career has continued to thrive.
Back to the Beginning
Born in Vietnam, he grew up cooking all the time with his Mom in the kitchen. “I love cooking because it reminds me of me and my mom...the happy time in the kitchen. So I always liked cooking.” In 1981, when he was still a kid, he moved all the way to America. It was there he learned English from watching a popular TV Show that not only helped to inspire him but to ultimately find his career path. “I watched Three's Company and I named myself after Jack Tripper from Three's Company. And he became a chef, and I became a chef.” But Jack Tripper wasn’t his only food influence. He enjoyed watching chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Emeril Lagasse because “they’re so outgoing and have so much fun. And that’s what got me into cooking as well in the later stage.”
The Jack Cuisine
Today, Chef Jack Lee has a successful catering business named Chinoise Cuisine, the food made in a French Asian blend; chinoise being the French word for Chinese (purposeful on his part). “I love using the influence of where I was a kid,” he says. “You know the street food of the Far East and then it was the presentation, the elegance of the western world.” He continues, “I love where I'm coming from. I'm proud of my heritage. That's why I'm using the flavor, the texture—I believe that the best flavor comes from the street food, those little bite appetizers—But I put my WOW factor in. I decorate it, I make it with better ingredients, bling bling to it; so more plating, more elegance of the western influence with the street food.”
It’s not just how the food tastes but how it looks as well, with every piece of the meal thought out. “I do a lot of pairing wines and some of the plating and table décor. I want to bring that fine dining experience to the client's house. Bring not just the food aspect but rather the whole ambience, the experience, Jack's personality.”
With everything combined together “it becomes Jack Cuisine.” He adds, “You know, I'm a fun guy after a few drinks. [Laughs] They love me.”
Celebrity Clientele, Culinary Trends and Veganism.
Despite his fun personality, it can be demanding at times to cook for A List clients. “Sometimes it can be very stressful because some of them are very picky when it comes to food.” From allergies to the mood of the client, veganism, vegetarianism, or to other popular, culinary trends, Jack stays on top of it all.
“I always keep up with the culinary trends. The Paleo Cuisine is coming up. Back then I had to deal with vegan, and it's just more and more now. The palate of the foodies in California are changing. The last ten years wasn't like this. Now they always want more things. More pizzazz, more interesting, the tastes become more exquisite… And the ingredients have become healthier now. Gluten free, no wheat… [Laughs] So I have to cope with it. But I try to do my best, still making everything look pretty, delicious…"
Despite changing demands, Jack is up for the challenge and even seems to enjoy it. When asked if creating a great vegan meal requires more skill and technique than a traditional meat centered one in order to make it satisfying and unique, he had this to say: “I believe so. I find it very challenging at times. But it's good for me because I'm constantly learning every day. We never stop learning. I'm a student at life, right? Even in the culinary world. Every challenge presents itself and I have to do my research and learn from that. And become better at it. That makes me different.”
Food Trends and the Rise of the Foodie
Going even further into food trends now and beyond Jack had even more to say: “Because I keep up with the trends because I am in the business, I see what my competitor is doing out there. The trend is still local grown veggies, seafood, the meat, gluten free.... And also surprisingly the comfort food is coming back. A lot of chefs—they’re touching the comfort food. And I notice a lot of chefs are looking for the Far East for new alternatives.”
So right now “a lot of Asian influence is in still….In a lot of American contemporary restaurants now they do Miso, they do Asian ingredients. So they are looking at new things. And believe it or not, ten to fifteen years ago you don't see Japanese restaurants serving pizza, or a Korean restaurant serving Tacos. [Laughs] The California Kitchen doing Kung Pao Spaghetti. Are you kidding me?”
However, there is one trend that just keeps coming and that’s the “foodie.” According to Jack, “This young hipster foodie….the young age, the twenty-something, the thirty-something, they’re always constantly looking for new tastes. They develop this palate that is wanting more and more every day…It used to be a Ramen noodle. Now it's Ramen burger.”
As odd as some of these trends may sound, Mr. Lee is all in favor of it. “It's a beautiful thing. Eating new stuff and trying new things, that's what this world is all about. You know, criss-crossing. Twenty years ago, nobody heard of pho…And now it's like another trend. It's the latest trend in California. Everybody's eating the Vietnamese noodle. Oprah calls the pho the next taco. The next five years it will be the taco in California.”
The Famous $100 Eggroll
One of Mr. Lee’s most famous dishes is his $100 eggroll. Having made eggrolls his whole life, learning from his Mom and from her Mom, he decided to take the eggroll to a whole new level after dealing with Bel Air clients in 90210. “They always want something better. Add bling bling. Make it better. Make it more pizzazz. I said, okay? You want more pizazz? You want bling bling? I'll give you bling bling. So we came up with the $100 eggroll!” Using the finest of ingredients (including Maine Lobster Tail), it is not your average eggroll. In fact, Jack makes sure to clarify any misunderstanding as to why it might be a little on the pricy side. “The hundred dollar eggroll is not just the eggroll. You’ve got to pair with a nice glass of Dom Perignon, fine champagne. It's more to say like a lifestyle. It's a complete meal right there. It's a good pairing with the champagne and caviar, 24 karat gold leaf, truffles and all that goodies in that eggroll.”
Catering Events to Remember
When asked about his best, most memorable catering event he had trouble narrowing to just one. “Oh my God, there’s so many,” he pondered. So he turned his focus to one of the recent ones where he cooked for Golden Globe Winner Jacqueline Bisset. “We had so much fun. A lot of clients give me the liberty, the freedom to create my own cuisine—“Okay Jack, you know, do your thing."
And do his thing he does. “I would plan out every dish that I do. I want to let the client know what ingredients I'm using, where is it coming from and why would I pair with what kind of alcohol to make it a memorable dish. So every bite is meaningful to them. It’s like I said, cooking with Jack is much more free. It's about a whole entire experience—fine dining experience. And you learn about culture and you learn about things. And that's what I do. I like to do research.”
Another memorable event for Jack was with Stella McCartney where he was able to put his research skills to good use. “I had to cook British food. But cooking British food was bling bling. So I spent about four days understanding the British culture. I totally respect…their Yorkshire pudding, their fish and chips...So from there I [was] able to adapt and make it look beautiful. Like a Waldorf Salad…you add the wow factor to it. It looked great.”
After a Hard Day’s Work
At the end of the day, it’s easy to imagine Jack Lee likes to cook up all sorts of fancy concoctions even at home. But after a hard day’s work, he feels the opposite. “There's a whole saying: A chef needs to work. After five fine meals that you cook up, you're so lost and tired, you just settle for anything that fill up your tummy.” That said, if there is one food he could eat all the time he would have to: “pick bouillabaisse—one of my favorite dishes I would love to eat all the time, which is a Mediterranean dish.”
Food Must Haves on Our Shelves
What food then does Chef Jack Lee think everyone should have on their shelves? “Well it depends on what they're in for. You don't want to know what's on my shelf—it’s everything! It's so much I'm confused,” he answers. “But the must have that I love to use is this western food, you know, bacon. You must have bacon. Bacon always adds flavor. The fat always adds flavor.” On top of that, he adds that “the aromatic is a must. You always want to add that aroma… The soy sauce, you know to add the umami flavor to certain meat. So it's all sorts. I really can't pinpoint. I wish I could. I have so much,” Jack laughs.
Becoming a Great Chef
Becoming a great chef takes a lot more than natural skill. “I believe it's all about attitude first. Attitude and then how much you want to learn,” Jack declares. “I don't think it's innate because I'm still learning now. I'm still learning from other chefs. I'm learning from home cooks, can you believe? [Laughs] I mean, I'm a student of life. Like I said, whether it's everyday routine or in the kitchen everybody keeps learning. You don't stop learning. I believe this is all from a learning experience; cooking too. I don't think you can be born just knowing how to cook.”
As for aspiring chefs, Jack has some good advice to give. “I've recently been to Vail, Colorado and did a five day tasting and there's a lot of culinary students there. They're still very green. Their experience—they wanna learn, they're very hungry; and I give them advice. I said, "You know, stay hungry. Okay, do you want to learn? Do you want to be the best? Then keep a good attitude. If you're in it for the money, you're in the wrong place.” “With cooking, there's no money in cooking. You've got to have artistic value, you cook your butt off every day and then you learn from there. And you've got to have the passion for it. If you don't have the passion, then it's not for you."
However, it’s not just passion you’ll need if you want to become a great chef, you also need heart. “You have to cook from the heart because the taste that goes through it,” Jack explains. “So, once on the recipient end, when they taste the food they know WOW. They've got depth, they've got texture, they got flavor. This guy's got soul, right? It's all about the heart. You have the heart in it and if you put your love into the food you can taste it. And if you don't put love into the food, you're not gonna sell.”
Jack and American Idol
As for pursuing any other creative passions or career paths besides cooking, Chef Jack Lee had quite the interesting response. “Well I love singing. But I can't sing. [Laughs] So I stick to my daytime job.”
For Jack it was an easy decision to decide on becoming a chef over any other possible aspirations. “Yeah, I tried to audition for Randy Jackson and he didn't feel it. So I got to go back to cooking.” Jack jokes. “American Idol—Ewuh.”
Besides working hard with his catering business, Chef Jack Lee also has a lot of other upcoming projects in the works. Right now, he’s finishing a book that he will soon present to the publisher. Besides the book, he also has a cooking show pilot in development.
“Unfortunately I can't talk about it because I signed a confidentiality agreement. But it is in the works. Very close. That's the good news. So hopefully if it works out we shoot the pilot soon and Food Network or Travel Channel or Food Channel picks it up.”
In addition, Jack is in the process of meeting with the Rubio Aviation Company. “They asked me if I wanted to be on the advisory board for their private jet company. Creating menus and stuff like that. I believe in lifestyle as well. It's not just about cooking, it's the whole experience. So private jet is not bad, right?”
As for right now, you can catch Chef Jack Lee competing (again) on Cutthroat Kitchen February 23rd on Food Network.
To learn more about Chef Jack Lee and to see his some of his artistic food masterpieces, head on over to his website: http://www.chefjacklee.com/