Jihan Lee

Nami Nori
Greenwich Village, NYC
If you've been to Nami Nori, you know that they understand quality. It's one of what feels like only a handful of restaurants in NYC where everyone is treated like a VIP guest, from the start of your meal to when it's time to happily hobble home. On top of superb hospitality is the menu of equal excellence. Perfectly stacked hand rolls and delightful starters like furikaké fries and Japanese potato salad make ordering one of everything menu an obvious choice. Chef/ Owner Jihan Lee completely encapsulates the ethos of the restaurant: welcoming, sharp, and incredibly engaging. We sat with him at the West Village location, where he dodged in and out of the restaurant greeting guests and friends.
No items found.

Name, age, and where are you from?

My name is Jihan Lee, I'm 33 years old, almost 34. I'm actually from Portland, Oregon. Growing up was great, I was surrounded by nature. And now I'm here in a concrete jungle, so it's different but I love New York.

Was food a big part of your upbringing?

I grew up living with my grandparents as well as my parents. My parents owned a restaurant so they were always at work, and when I'd come home my grandma would always have food for me. I think Asian parents in general love to feed the younger generation, force you to eat more and more. On top of that, because my parents owned a restaurant I was always in and out. I started washing dishes when I was 12, scooping ice cream on Valentine's Day, that kind of thing. I wasn't a great student, and when I was 14, I came home with Ds and Fs on a report card, and my parents made me come work after school at the restaurant for a month. My dad was like "If you get bad grades, this is what you'll be doing the rest of your life." When I came to New York I needed a job, and luckily I knew how to make sushi. So that's how I got my start.

What are your earliest memories of dining out?

Growing up when I was a lot younger I didn't eat out that much. I do remember going to a sushi restaurant when I was really young and eating tamago and shrimp. After that it was really mostly Korean or Chinese restaurants. Portland's food scene didn't really blow up until after I left. Eating at my parent's restaurant was kind of it until I came to New York, aside from Applebee's. Tony Roma's--do those still exist?? Coming to New York opened up my eyes. It changed everything.

No items found.

If you could give a piece of advice to someone who wants to pursue your career, what would it be?

Make sure it's what you want to do. If you're going to do it, do the best you can. It takes so much passion to do this, and if you're just testing the water don't even start. The majority of the people that last are the ones who are passionate about it. They surround themselves with people of a similar mindset. When I was at Masa I was working 120 or 130 hours a week. Even through that I wanted to do it. I didn't care about a social life, I wanted to cook food and make the best sushi in the world.

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

Definitely passion like I said. Also that nothing in life is easy and if you really want to do something, you have to give it 100%. I used to do things at 50% and it wasn't working out. And give 100% not just for yourself, but also for those around you. Otherwise they'll view you differently, as lazy. Maybe back then I was younger and just didn't care what others thought, but reputation is actually very important. People ask me for a references all the time, I have to be honest. Those kind of things stick with you.

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

The calamari, I love it. I love fried food. The batter is crispy and chewy on the inside. The sauce has a little kick to it. Hand roll and temaki-wise I love luxury: toro, uni, and caviar together. Those are the best things in life all together. I'll serve that to people and see how happy they get, they have to close their eyes while they're eating it. That's why I do what I do.

No items found.

When you're not here, where would we find you for dinner and what are you ordering?

I go to K-Town a lot for comfort. It's one of those places I can go and I'll know someone there. I'd say Soju House is somewhere I always go. It always ends up being a hangout. There's also a new bar that opened up called Ninano, they have really good cocktails and they carry one of my favorite sojus, "Hwayo". It's one of the first premium soju companies that was imported into the US. They have a whisky-aged one that tastes like whisky but it's soju.

You're on a desert island.

A knife, a cutting board, a towel--especially as a sushi chef. In my line of work you don't really need a pot or a pan so we can skip those. I think I only need those 3! I don't like fire that much, they call it sushi hands. When you're touching cold fish all the time, fire is a lot.

No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.