We had the good fortune of connecting with Jake Lee and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jake, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
As a child of Korean entrepreneurs that grew up with incredibly busy parents with limited directions, I’ve always been a free spirited thinker that didn’t mind making my own decisions and undertaking risks. Ever since I immigrated to US as kid, I’ve always been comfortable with the idea of fighting through life as the underdog. For me, I’ve always wanted to start my own business because it was a chance for my ideas to be free and to prove myself to be a highly valuable and competitive individual. This mindset and the drive was always within me… but I still decided to follow the path of traditional success by working hard to get into a prestigious college prep school and studying business in college.
However, everything changed for me one day. During a snowing January during my freshman year of college, I got a sudden video call from my mom who collapsed at home. Within a day, my world came crashing down to realize that she had less than 6 months to live in an extremely painful battle against stage IV cancer. Fighting back tears, I immediately went home and got permission to just come back for exams. For the next ensuing 4 months in 2009, my mother didn’t have the stomach (from surgery with stomach cancer) and I did not know when she was going to leave us. What an irony this was… she fed us delicious meals throughout her life and at death’s door, she didn’t have any Korean restaurants or family members that could cook for her. We never knew when her last meal would be.
I learned to cook like her life and final memories depended on it. Every single day, I made something new to feed her a tiny morsel that she could barely take in. With every dish, she cried with joy. Not because I was the best cook, but because she was cherishing her last moments with her son in her consciousness hanging on by a thread. Until the last day, we spent time and I learned to think about life backwards. It’s very short. As morbid as that is, it also made me realize how important it is to cherish my own time and my loved ones.
As years went by, my passion for food grew and so did my desire to maximize my potential to live without regrets and to be truly expressive of my soul. I worked hard to continue my passion for the food industry as well as to have a fundamental understanding of the business world. I applied to Alinea, competed for the Masterchef apron while I was pursuing a career in finance. After crazy amount of work and self exploration, I finally saved enough capital as an investment banker to break out on my own and start my own business. For me, starting a business wasn’t just an interest or a pursuit of grandeur. The best way I can describe it is that this was the culmination of my being where I put my life and my soul to the test. This has not been an easy path in many ways as I faced many obstacles including a pandemic. However, I’m extremely grateful to have survived and have come out stronger than ever before.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
Unlike most culinary professionals, I’ve had limited experience in the traditional restaurant industry and I wanted to try new food business models that optimized for different factors that other traditional restaurants didn’t (space utilization, ghost kitchen before pandemic, labor leverage and etc). As somebody who truly believes in the scientific method, I took the harder way of trying to figure out based on a hypothesis of certain industry problems that I saw and testing out different variables and methods to fix those problems.
I certainly felt the pain of experimentation in both physical and financial forms but I really got into the critical thinking aspect of how to build a business. One of the things that I’ve learned to do exceptionally well is that I now invest heavily in my employees and cultivate a strong culture. After all, my business inspiration was from my mom’s personal touch and a restaurant is a haven for people to experience that love indirectly through our collective care. I want my customers to feel that intensity of that passion and care that inspired me to start a restaurant by creating culture with employees that emulate that. They’ve done a great job so far.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Chicago is an incredible area for dining and entertainment. While many entertainment options have been closed due to the pandemic, there are many excellent places to feel the city vibe. We would check out great restaurants from casual to michelin starred, go on a boat ride in Michigan, and have a great heartfelt conversation with intimate group of friends at a rooftop in any of buildings with beautiful view of the city. I can’t wait til the pandemic subsides and things go back to normal.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My mother was the inspiration for my start. However, I have so many friends and partners that have seen me through my worst mistakes and remained supportive no matter what. My dad also never gave me a hard time for giving up a lucrative future in the professional world of finance despite that he put it all at risk for me to move to this country for me. I’m blessed to have such loving and inspirational parents and friends who never stopped believing in me.