Justin Lee

Fat Choy
Lower East Side, New York
"Not many Chefs can float so smoothly between two opposite ends of the culinary spectrum and be successful in both, but my longtime buddy Justin Lee has been able to pull off the impossible. We used to be elbows deep cooking ribeyes and pig heads, and here he is now making Vegan Sort Of Chinese food that I, whose daily diet is mostly steak and sausages, can’t stop thinking about. I don’t know what he is putting in those rice rolls that make them so addicting, i just know that it’s not meat and that I’d eat them for every meal of the day if I could." -- Kimberly Plafke
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Full name, age where are you from?

Justin Henry Lee, 35. Oak Hill, VA.

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

Growing up we were fortunate enough to eat for pleasure. We, my parents and my older brother, ate nearly every meal together. Sharing the table and a meal with friends and family has always been one of my greatest pleasures. As a kid we came to Manhattan’s Chinatown every weekend because my parents are from here and all my grandparents worked in either bakeries or restaurants. I learned to love both the cuisine and culture of Chinatown along with the food ways of the south and my home state, Virginia. Beef chow fun is as near and dear to my heart as country fried steak.

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

Beef chow fun. Every time I smell it I can see the hallway leading to my maternal grandparent’s apartment. On our almost weekly visits, the smell would waft down the hall from apartment 9D where my Po Po was making other childhood favorites like ginger scallion chicken and Rice Krispie Treats.

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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 chef and owner of Fat Choy, a kind of Chinese, also vegan fast food joint. Everything we do from the food to packaging to kitchen habits are done with mindfulness of their environmental impact. Both sets of my grandparents were in the industry as either bakery or restaurant owners. I garnered an appreciation for food early on in life, and after college went to the Culinary Institute of America. I got an externship with Scott Bryan then promptly dropped out of school, and went on to Locanda Verde under Andrew Carmellini in 2009.

How has the pandemic affected you?

We were slated to open at the end of March 2020, haha. I very much appreciate the extra time the pandemic gave me with my wife and the opportunity to plant a garden last summer and see it come to fruition. Business-wise, the pandemic gave us an amazingly talented and hardworking team. Getting to learn with and from them has made our restaurant so much more special.

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

It’s taught me about the wonderful community of people who choose this line of work. We’ve become champions for each other. It’s almost like we’ve banded together to become a PR company that sends love to everyone in the industry. It’s so amazing to be a part of this extended family.

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What's your favorite item on the menu?

The new dish I’m always cooking up in my head. I love all of the mainstays on the menu, that’s why they exist. There’s just so much excitement about the future dishes and the exploration the team can take towards the growth of our food, that the next one is always my favorite.

I do really love the mushroom sloppy the most though. It was something I figured would be the most popular dish. The funny thing is that I had never made the sesame pancake in any substantial batch size, nor with the aid of a mixer. A couple weeks before Fat Choy opened we started to really learn about the dough. It was a crash course on something that I believed would be our best seller. We bet the farm on the team getting it right.

Once it is completely safe to eat out again and socialize, where is the first place you're going out to eat at and what are you ordering?

I’m going to a dive bar and drinking cheap beer and shots of whatever’s being poured. No cheese sandwich or bag of chips necessary, just conversations with strangers and people watching to satiate my soul.

Anything exciting coming up for you?

There are always fun collaborations coming down the pipeline. I’m pumped to finally open our dining room and for our chef’s table dinners to launch. Those will be a fun playdate with our guests. Also we’ll be in a national food magazine for an issue focused on sustainability, so that’s pretty exciting.

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