Jinhee Lee always knew she wanted to be a chef, but her path was anything but easy. Originally from South Korea, Lee — who now calls Calgary home — spent most of her adult life as a kindergarten teacher, but later decided she wanted a career in culinary instead.
The hard road began by having to explain to her parents that this was the career she’d chosen to pursue. Fearing her parents would disapprove because it wasn’t an “honourable profession,” Lee secretly enrolled at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) after taking a tour of the campus facilities and meeting an instructor at the school.
“I watched a chef instructor demonstrate how to make a hollandaise sauce,” says Lee. “He added a little lemon at the end and let me taste how the acidity changed the flavour of the sauce. I was so inspired I decided then I would become a chef.”
After graduating from SAIT’s two-year culinary program, Lee accepted an internship at Belgo Brasserie in Calgary, where she met chef Duncan Ly — renowned for his work at Tofino, B.C.’s Wickaninnish Inn, Vancouver’s Diva and Calgary’s Catch. They worked together for many years at Hotel Arts in Calgary before Ly left to start a modern Pan-Asian restaurant, Foreign Concept, taking Lee with him to be his executive chef.
Offering dishes inspired by Korean, Chinese and other modern Asian influences, Foreign Concept features small plates such as house-made napa-cabbage kimchi ($5) and silken-tofu and pork doubanjang ($13). It also serves up large plates, including squid-ink spaghetti ($28) and braised duck leg ($25).
“Duncan really took me under his wing and I was exposed to all areas [of the kitchen],” she says. “I got a taste of pastry, banquet, breakfast, lunch and dinner [stations]. Eventually, I became the chef de cuisine at Raw Bar at Hotel Arts before leaving to join Foreign Concept. For me, it’s been a great experience.”
Becoming an executive chef is one of Lee’s proudest moments. Her commitment to growth has propelled her to become one of the most-admired chefs in Calgary’s culinary scene. In 2016, Lee was named among the top-five people to watch in Calgary’s food scene by Avenue Calgary. In the past, she’s competed in a number of different culinary competitions and, after being a finalist in Season 6 of Top Chef Canada, was named one of Western Living magazine’s ‘Foodies of the Year.’
Over time, she says her passion has only intensified as she continues to grow as a chef. One day she hopes to open a restaurant concept of her own, to pay homage to her family roots and the people who inspired her.
“I like clean, uncomplicated flavours and I like to showcase my Korean heritage and my Canadian training through my cooking,” she says. “I want to continue to grow and expand my cooking knowledge and who knows? Perhaps I’ll open my own place in the future.”