Jae Lee

East Village, NYC
Nowon, the first venture of Executive Chef-turned-owner Jae Lee, bears the name (and flavors) of the chef’s hometown: the Nowon district located in south Seoul. While we're used to making the journey up to 33rd street to dine at a Korean pocha, Lee's brought the fare downtown, nestled into the East Village where it sits fittingly alongside other bustling cafes and bars. Originally launched to ~fame~ by his Kimchi Mayo Burger, Lee has grown his Korean-American fusion into a full menu, with items such as Chopped Cheese Rice Cakes, and Kimchi Burrata (mind blown.) Read on for more about Lee's journey, and how his on-the-move upbringing brought him to meld two culinary worlds.
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Full name, age, where are you from?

My name is Jae Lee. I am 32 years old and I am from Seoul, South Korea.

What was growing up like for you and did you have family meals growing up?

I grew up in Korea until I was 8. I was popular and had many friends. I ate with my parents and grandma every dinner. We moved toJamaica Queens in 1997 and I had to adapt and grow in a totally new environment. I felt left out in the beginning but started to make friends and was able to fit in. We moved a lot even in New York. From Jamaica Queens, to Flushing to Floral Park and then Hicksville. We always ate as a family though, and that dinner table was a special table for me.

What meal, or beverage, most reminds you of your childhood?

Childhood meals in cafeterias: Sloppy Joe, chocolate milk in a carton. Childhood meals at home: kimchi jjigae with rice and over easy egg and mango juice in bottle.

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Tell us a bit about your venture. What is your role and how did you get into this industry?

I am the owner of Nowon. My title is chef/operator I guess but I do everything whenever needed. I got into the industry needing to get a job to pay rent at the tender age of 18. Through my dad's connection in a Korean church, I got a job as a ramen cook in the city.

How has the pandemic affected you?

Pandemic was a crash course of operating a business. This is the first business that I've owned and I learned to pivot and to keep grinding. I think this pandemic has shown who is resilient and who is not. It was a chance for some businesses to try something they always wanted to try. It made me stronger and grow as a leader. I was challenged in ways. For example, I stopped drinking alcohol. It made me more focused and gave me a lot of clarity I needed in order to lead the team.

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What do you think working in this industry during this time has taught you?

It's taught me to always pivot and be ready to welcome change. Remain positive, and stay mentally strong for yourself, family and the team. To take a day off when exhausted and mentally drained, to treat yourself and eat healthy. To nourish your body but also your mind.

What's your favorite dish and drink on the menu?

My favorite dish currently is our "Dry Aged Steak Burger" and our "Seoul Mule". We recently R&D'd and made a secret seasoning blend which enhances the umami and brings out more of meaty characteristics in the steak burger.  Seoul Mule is such a fresh, gingery and refreshing soju cocktail, we use ginger infused jinro 24 soju, fresh ginger syrup, ginger beer and candied ginger as garnish.

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What is your favorite place to go out and eat at and what are you ordering?

I love Asian restaurants. It's because they're so familiar to me and I always feel fulfilled and content leaving. I usually order a club soda with lemon or diet coke on occasion. Food order must consist of protein, vegetables and carbs and dessert all family style. I love sharing and tasting a variety of dishes. Growing up in a Korean household, that's what I am accustomed to.

Anything exciting coming up for you?

I am actively scoping spaces for my next project, wherever, whatever, and whenever that may be.

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