Tommy Lee, exec chef of Uncle, on yakitori, Yelp and stinky tofu
This is part one of my interview with Tommy Lee, exec chef of Uncle; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
At 4:45 on a Saturday afternoon, a swarm of restless ramen geeks congregates around the door of Uncle, Tommy Lee's unassuming noodle bar in LoHi. By 5:15, fifteen minutes after the staff has turned the key to welcome the hive inside, the dining room is at a full buzz. The success of Uncle, which nabbed Westword's Best New Restaurant award in the Best of Denver 2013, still seems a little unsettling to Lee, who opened Uncle last August. "I'm a cook, not a chef, and I really have absolutely no idea what I'm doing," he announces while maneuvering his way through the open kitchen to check on his noodles and a huge stock pot boiling with whole chickens. Denver's food cognoscenti, however, appear to disagree with Lee's assessment of his skills.
But hearing Lee tell the story of how he went from being a counter guy collecting money to being the chef-owner of one of the city's most popular restaurants makes you wonder: Just how did he do it? Even Lee doesn't seem to know the answer, but he'll suggest that it all started with traveling. While Lee was born and raised in Denver, his parents are from Hong Kong, a "snobby food city," he says, "that's a big melting pot of cultures with the best of all cuisines." And Lee spent weeks and months at a time in Hong Kong, not to mention Europe, where he lolled away the days with his aunt and uncle in France, drinking ooh-la-la French wines and eating out whenever he could. "I grew up eating really, really good food and drinking great wines, and all of that kind of moved me along this career path," says Lee, whose first restaurant job was actually in Denver, at Peter's Chinese Cafe, a joint owned by another "uncle" who's not a blood relative but a lifelong friend. "It's a term of endearment title that the Chinese use to bestow respect upon their elders, even if they're not blood relatives," says Lee, who has a lot of "uncles" in his life.
At Peter's, Lee collected -- and counted -- money, but he recalls wandering back to the kitchen at every opportunity to see what was sizzling in the wok. "I'd fool around a little bit in the kitchen and mess around with the wok, but I wasn't real serious about cooking at the time," says Lee, who didn't really begin cooking until he moved to Atlanta for college. He was propelled, he remembers, by what he was watching on TV. "For the first time in my life, I had cable, and all of a sudden, I was hooked on the Food Network, especially Mario Batali, so I started cooking a lot of Italian food."
Lee came back to Denver during the summer holiday and worked banquets at McCormick's, "filling hotel pans with bell peppers for hours on end," he says. Eventually he was given more responsibilities and freedom, and when the chef gifted him with Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and Michael Ruhlman's Soul of a Chef, both of which pay homage to Thomas Keller, Lee found the nearest bookstore and got his hands on a copy of Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook. "I was so into that cookbook, and even did a dinner party based on six or seven of the recipes," recounts Lee, who then built himself a little gig on the side, doing private catering.