Chef Kevin Lee has palate-forming childhood memories of waking up to a seafood breakfast – pulled fresh from the ocean that morning and prepared by his grandparents in Korea.
“I’ve always enjoyed food,” he says. “Both sides of the family are great cooks. On my father’s side, my grandmother was a trained chef, and on mom’s side, my grandmother is just a great cook who had seven children and cooked for her family her whole life. All of this opened my palate from early childhood, making me open to textures and flavors most little kids wouldn’t be.
“I remember I was about six,” he shares. “I was happy to eat a whole plate of beef tartare. I love food and exotic, different things.”
Fast forward to now, and Lee is a regular face on the Food Network; you can often see him compete – and win – on shows like Iron Chef and Superchef Grudge Match. Alongside that, he’s continuing to hone his culinary craft into a new chef-driven restaurant concept. Birdie’s by Chef Kevin Lee is expected to debut this month in the OKC location of his previous restaurant.
Born in Norman, Lee has lived and worked all over the United States and spent extensive time traveling overseas, especially in Korea. Of the new restaurant concept, Lee says: “We’re changing the vibe, the interior, and starting fresh.”
The itch to change, he says, “started with trips to California. And though I enjoyed having a family vibe restaurant, I spent time with other chefs, including mentors, and just needed to focus on being a chef again.”
The new menu will better represent him and what he most likes to create.
“Rather than traditional Korean, those flavors will be presented in new ways and styles, speaking to who I am as a chef, as a Korean-American who’s lived in Oklahoma, Vegas, Seattle, the East Coast – just all over the place. I have a unique niche when it comes to flavors of food because of experiencing different flavors in other countries that most people haven’t.”
Lee feels confident that Oklahomans are ready for his new flavor profiles, textures and innovations.
“Korean barbecue is very easily relatable to American palates. We’ll have short ribs, steak entrees, braised beef shank, and these will be fun and familiar, but with a unique spin,” he says. “We will offer fresh raw crudo dishes, stone pot rice dishes, as well as house-made kimchi. One spin is kimchi pancakes served with ranch dressing.”
Lee anticipates the challenges and the creativity involved in his new concept, but is ready to do things his way.
“When I cooked as an executive chef, I always had to cook to fit the concept, not the way I wanted or could,” he said. “Now I can finally be who I am and not worry about responses. Oklahoma City diners are ready for new experiences, and I am ready to cook my food.”