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Putting the customer first is chef’s advantage: Lee Young-ra has a keen eye for what’s next in the food world

Aug 16,2019
Chef Lee Young-ra is the executive chef of Urban Delight, which runs five different restaurants and bars across Seoul. The newest properties, Le Cabaret Cite and The Lounge, both recently opened in central Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Le Cabaret Cite and the Lounge at The Plaza, Autograph Collection in central Seoul offers the savory and sweet dishes pictured top, left and above. [PARK SANG-MOON, LEE YOUNG-RA]
Chef Lee Young-ra is not like many other chefs in the industry. The 39-year-old lawyer-turned-chef first started learning how to cook professionally in her early 30s. She also works out often in order to have muscles strong enough to keep energetic while working long hours in the kitchen.

“My body is my asset,” said Lee, the executive chef of Urban Delight, a company that operates five different restaurants and bars across Seoul. Most recently, the company collaborated with The Plaza, Autograph Collection, a luxury hotel in central Seoul, to open Le Cabaret Cite and The Lounge.

She splits her time between taking care of the kitchens at Le Cabaret Dosan at Cheongdam Aiden Hotel in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, Floating at L7 Hotel Myeongdong, central Seoul, and Kloud at Mercure Ambassador Sodowe Gangnam hotel in southern Seoul and meeting customers waiting to see her in action.

No matter how tasty her dishes are, many still ask her “why on earth” she changed her career from the legal world to the food industry. She says that many people instantly assume that being a lawyer is a good job and that being a chef is not. But for her, it was simply about making a choice to do what she loves and what she couldn’t stop thinking about all day and night.

“It was an easy choice for me,” said Lee. “Personally, being a chef makes me very happy because I meet a lot of people who come to where I am to celebrate their birthdays, to propose or to treat someone they care for. Before, I met a lot of people who were going through difficult life situations or who were not very pleasant.”

“I know where I have the most fun, and I think that is difficult for others to find.”

The years of studying law before joining the food scene has actually freed her from many different stereotypical ideas that trained chefs often have. The biggest thing is that she doesn’t see the need to have a kitchen with a rigid hierarchy. There are no designated roles for beginners or professionals in her kitchen. Everyone on staff takes turns doing different things so that they can do multiple things and be ready for when they open their own restaurant or lead a kitchen. Everyone participates when a new menu is being developed, and Lee never presents drawings of possible plating designs, so the staff is free to use their own creativity.

“When I choose my staff, I check how observant they are during a trial,” she said. “Those observant members watch what I do as they work, and that eliminates excess time to talk with one another and encourages them to act instantly.”

She also avidly keeps up with social media. She uses it to do market research and to see what items are trending and attract customers. That is a habit she picked up to make up for the lack of time she has to visit the hottest spots in the city in person.

“Of course I won’t be able to feel everything unless I experience it myself, but since my time is limited, I can at least make the most out of social media,” said Lee.

“Based on what foodies post, I get to see what they are most interested in and figure out what people want.”

Her desire to keep up with consumer behavior comes from her previous experience of running her own restaurant. Called Prep, the restaurant was in Buam-dong, central Seoul, a neighborhood she loved. There, she learned that she needs to appeal to the public, rather than staying in the kitchen mastering her skills without doing any promotion or not making the effort to greet customers at the door or their table.

“It is important to show that I’m here to welcome you and serve you with good food and a good atmosphere,” she said. “I’m very curious about what mood each customer is in when they visit, and I want to do the best I can to provide what they want to have. No one will notice you if you just wait for someone to discover you one day.”

As an executive chef managing multiple outlets, she now spends more time managing than cooking. But what brings her back to the kitchen are events held by companies, embassies and individuals who want a curated menu. Sometimes it is a champagne house introducing new items to the local market paired with some dishes, and other times it is a party to celebrate national events at an embassy. She customizes a course menu each time to make dishes that fit the characters of each event.

Later on, she dreams of having a restaurant of her own, with only about 12 seats available. There will be no pre-determined menu because she would be buying ingredients daily from the market. She would like to show how tasty food can be with fresh ingredients, and she believes that’s the way to earn the customer’s trust.

“I’m there where customers want me,” Lee said.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]