On a Monday night in February, David Lee was at work in the Chinoiserie kitchen preparing a shrimp and a chicken stir-fry. The 61-year-old Chinese man described his ability to cook quickly as being “like a monkey.”
In the dining room of his six-table restaurant at 822 Clark Street, a pair of dark-haired women walked past the dusty entryway and grabbed the sturdy, carved oak table closest to the kitchen. The restaurant’s nursery-blue walls were hard to see in the dim lighting. So was the cheap, painted plywood sheet that functioned as a wall, dividing the dining room and kitchen.
Lee continued to cook while the women tried to get his attention. Each time the women shifted in their seats, the plastic covering squeaked like a woopie cushion. They shouted, “Hello,” “Excuse me,” and “Can anyone help us?” but Lee did not respond.
After 10 minutes, the women got up to leave. At that moment, Lee entered the dining room with two heaping platters. He saw the women but didn’t urge them to sit down. He did not explain that on most nights he works alone, that he has to cook, serve, and clean by himself – or that when he gets a delivery order, he has to lock the restaurant and drive it over himself. Instead, he served the two men by the window and sat down to chat with them.
“Fuck them,” he said after the women left, loudly enough for anyone in the restaurant to hear. He waved his middle fingers in the direction of where they sat. “I’m sick and tired with the customers,” he said. “This kind of customer? Get out. You missed the best chance of your life. They’ll still be searching around, looking for the best food. Ten years later, they’re still going to get egg fu yang. I lost a couple customers, but they lost their lifetime.”
Lee spoke in broken English. He did not have a Midwestern, nasal drawl on his “a”s, as you’d expect from someone who has lived in Chicago for more than 30 years, and he barely pronounced consonants like “v.” They’re not sounds made in Chinese. When he spoke, the odor of stale cigarettes wafted out of his mouth, and I could glimpse his six remaining, tar-stained teeth. Lee, who stands just over five feet, looked much smaller in a Nike shirt that was three sizes too large. The extra fabric below his armpits flapped like wings when he moved his hands.
Lee opened Chinoiserie in September as What the Food, serving mainly Chinese and Korean home-style dishes. When the name didn’t attract customers, he changed it to Chinoiserie, the same name as the 150-seater space he previously operated in Wilmette. Outside, black paint cover the words “Tacos del Lago” (the sign of a previous occupant) thinly enough that they’re still legible on the blue awning. It had remained unchanged during Big Ka Hoo Na Hawaiian BBQ’s nine-month stint in the space, and it will be the next occupant’s issue to deal with.
The new moniker didn’t help much — after just over six months in business, the restaurant closed earlier this month, making it the 7th establishment in that space to shutter its doors during the past decade. Not long after the restaurant opened, Lee had told The Daily Northwestern he was aware of the “curse” that affected businesses at 822 Clark, but he remained undaunted — he told the newspaper that he would provide Asian-American students with the kind of food only “your mama” could make. Of course, opening a small-scale, “authentic” pan-Asian restaurant in a college town dominated by cheap pad thai and bubble tea is not the most sound business plan. But as it turns out, there’s a lot about Lee that doesn’t make much sense.
In David Lee’s version of his life, he was born in Gunsan, South Korea, although his parents were Chinese. He got his start in the food business at the age of just 14 years old, as a prep chef at the best Chinese restaurant in Seoul, where he regularly cooked for prime ministers, eventually rising to become a chef. He alternated years between the restaurant and school. During that time, he lived alone in an apartment and sent money back home to support his parents and siblings. It took him ten years to complete a five-year high school program, but when he was in school, he always ranked in the top three students of his class. At the age of 22, he left Korea to study food processing at Texas A&M.
In 1974, Lee opened a restaurant in Lake Forest called North China, which was frequented by the likes of Robert Redford and Chicago culinary icon Charlie Trotter. It charged $25 per person — about $100 per person in today’s dollars — and it thrived. But the schmoozing became too much to tolerate. “I was a big shot,” he told me. “But I don’t like faking bullshit.”
So Lee closed the restaurant in the early ‘80s and opened a sushi bar in Lincoln Park. Within a few months, it went under. People were scared off by the raw food. But he assured his little brother Jim Bee that Japanese cuisine was going to take off soon and encouraged him to open his own sushi restaurant. He even helped him out financially. After two years of struggling, Jim Bee’s restaurant became a hit. “He keep my tradition go,” Lee says. He is the king and foundation of Japanese in Chicago.”
Lee went on to open various Chinese restaurants, but he now plans to go into food processing, selling frozen Asian buns. He thinks he can produce 10,000 steamed buns, known as bao, a day. With more than 30 years in the food service business, he’ll be able to make bao that are appealing to Westerners. He is confident the company will overtake the Shanghai-based food exporter Wei-Chuan that currently dominates the Asian frozen food market.
The story Lee tells sounds like the American dream — a rags-to-riches tale filled with morality and hard work.
Sadly, it is not true. Texas A&M doesn’t offer a food processing major, and it only added a degree in food science and technology in 2005. I could find no mention of North China, his prix-fixe Chinese restaurant catering to the stars, in the archives of the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun-Times. And by the time Lee said he opened his Japanese restaurant in the ‘80s, the buzz around Los Angeles’s Nobu had made sushi posh, even in smaller American cities.
Unlike Lee, who grew up in Korea, his brothers Jim Bee and Bob Bee spent most of their lives in Japan. The two boys trained as sushi chefs and worked at a family-owned restaurant in Japan before moving to the United States. When the brothers opened their first Chicago restaurant, Sai Café, it was the early 90’s, and sushi was the perfect first date — adventurous but not too strange. Today, the brothers own four chic, well-respected sushi spots in Chicago: Sai Café, Hachi’s Kitchen, Bob San, and Sushi Naniwa.
When I spoke with Jim Bee by phone, he happily chatted about his brother and former Sai Café co-owner Bob’s success, but he was surprised when I brought up Lee. Reluctantly, Jim confirmed that they are related but when asked to verify that they are brothers, he sharply repeated two times, “half brothers.” Then he hung up and refused to take any further calls.
On nights when Chinoiserie isn’t busy, Lee sits down with the diners. “I don’t mind, David,” said Brandon Beach, a customer on his third visit, “but I can see how it’d turn people off.”
Lee looked girlishly giddy as he told Beach about North China and all the celebrities that raved about his food. Then he reminded Beach and his friend that the current setup was only temporary and the meal they were getting was a steal.
Beach was disappointed that the restaurant would be closing. It was cheap, tasty, and he lived nearby. He had even made a habit of getting to the restaurant before 7 p.m., because Lee is usually gone by 9 p.m., although the restaurant’s advertised times are 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on weekdays. Beach had seen many customers turned away when Lee wanted to go home early.
There are few customers in Chinoiserie, especially on the weekdays. I got my first hint that business was slow when Lee scheduled an interview for a Monday at 5:30 p.m. When I arrived, it was empty. On Valentine’s Day, Lee didn’t have a single customer. He blames it on entitled Evanston residents who expect valet parking and groveling service. “People nowadays, when they go outside to enjoy dinner, it’s not just to have good food. They want entertainment,” he said. “It’s not like it used to: ‘Oh it’s good food. I have to have the food just because the food is so good, I drive one hour to come here.’”
Lee plays many Beethoven piano sonatas over the speakers, sometimes blaringly loud, but the music is frequented interrupted by arguments between Lee and his wife Janice, the sometimes hostess and waitress of Chinoiserie. On one carryout visit, Janice chatted on the phone about her children while David cooked my order of jia jiang noodles – a Chinese dish made with soy paste, mushrooms, and pork. He muttered to his wife, “Get off the phone, I don’t like that.” She said there was nothing to do in the restaurant.
Then, David stormed out of the kitchen. He wrenched the telephone receiver out of Janice’s hand mid-sentence and slammed it against a tile counter four times. Janice looked horrified as he screamed, “You have no respect you stupid woman! You don’t do shit.” On the fifth hit, David dropped the phone. “Look at you Mr. Big Shot now, hmm? You’re so drunk you dropped the phone!” she screamed. His half-empty glass of whiskey sat on a dining table. I tried to sneak out without being noticed.
Lee says what sets him apart from other Chinese chefs is his training in French and Italian technique, which he infuses into his Asian dishes. Those influences are what Chinese food needs to go upscale, he says. “You have no choice but to come to this restaurant, for certain foods. Nobody can cook that. Like jia jiang noodles, nobody can cook better than I do. World-famous.”
I wondered if he was talking about the soupy Styrofoam box he had given me that night. He had used linguini pasta instead of traditional Asian flat flour noodles, the flavors of which better compliment the soy sauce. The other ingredients included soy paste out of a tin can, one-inch hunks of green onion, and a few pieces of pork scattered here and there. The noodles lacked salt and spice, and they were slick with oil. The $8 dish sustained four meals. It was what you’d expect from any other Chinese hole-in-the-wall — fast, greasy, and cheap.
I asked Lee what he liked to cook.
“Nothing,” he said. “Didn’t I tell you I liked food processing? But it’s too late. You name it right now you can get anything convenience food. The only thing left over for me is the bao.”
Lee’s company would use more adventurous fillings than a typical bao place. He wouldn’t stick to bok choy and tofu. Instead, he’d use meat inspired by other Asian cuisines, like Korean bulgogi, or barbecued beef. He was careful to point out that he had used the theory of economies of scale to come up with his plan to become the international leader in frozen bao.
I asked Lee how he planned to raise the money needed to buy the machines and hire the staff. He hadn’t even gotten enough capital to properly decorate his Evanston space.
Lee brushed off my question. Then he paused for an odd moment of silence, recalibrated, and told me that he would sell the buns in a storefront. I asked him if it’d be like Wow Bao, the small, popular chain of bun shops located primarily in downtown Chicago.
Lee made a guttural growl that sounded like gurgling. Then he slapped himself violently on both sides of the head, stuttering manically. He explained that Rick Melman – the proprietor of Wow Bao and more than 80 other restaurants through the company he cofounded, Lettuce Entertain You – had stolen his bao idea. “Before I come out, you’re already producing and selling it. You’ve got my head. That’s Ricky Melman. He took all my goddamn hair out. I hate him.”
According to Lee, he and Melman know each other personally. “He asks me secrets right and left. I never give it away.” But when I asked Melman’s assistant, Ann C. Johnson, she said they only knew Lee’s brother Bee, from consulting work he’d done for the company more than 10 years ago. No one had heard of a David Lee. “Rich Melman doesn’t remember [him],” she succinctly wrote in an e-mail.
At the end of the interview, I asked Lee where his wife was. She, and not him, owned Chinoiserie and their previous restaurant in Wilmette, which went by the same name. David told me that she was at home. “She’s too tired,” he said, clearly upset with her. He complained that his wife was lazy and wouldn’t come to the restaurant if she didn’t feel like it. “If you have a headache, I don’t care. On time go, on time come back.”
I spoke with Janice a few days later. She apologized for not being in the shop. She told me she had cancer, and she had been ill from radiation and chemotherapy. We scheduled an interview, which she had to cancel to get groceries for a catering job David had the next day. She wasn’t in the restaurant on the rescheduled date, either. David called her at home. “The chemo makes her forget everything, you know,” he told me. “She even forgot my cigarettes this morning.” It was his bad luck to have married her, he said. He had a lot of bad luck.
A week later, I called again. Janice was in Northwestern Memorial Hospital and her cancer was serious, David told me. She would not be coming into Chinoiserie anytime soon. He hung up.
Standing with his arms crossed on a Monday night, Lee scanned his dining room. Without a hint of irony, he said, “I give you food, I have to understand you. I custom tailor it to you. That is this place. People come in, practically no menu. It’s too successful.” It was a weekday, but it was also 7:30 pm, prime dinnertime, and we were the only two people inside.
But Lee knew the restaurant was failing. He knew that the background story he told was a tall tale. He just wouldn’t admit it out loud. As he told me about his Japanese restaurant he stopped, realizing there would be a record of everything he said. He pointed to my voice recorder. “You have this, I can’t say that,” he said, and changed the subject. He is not delusional. It’s more likely that he tells these stories to cope with a failed business and not achieving the success he had expected. He tells them so that reality seems less like the conclusion to his restaurant career and more like an episode of bad luck.
On March 11, 2010, the front door to Chinoiserie was locked. A scratched yellow notice from the City of Evanston stated that it had been closed due to health-code violations. The tables and chairs in the dining room were stacked near the window, and the lights were off. It appeared that David Lee had left the building for good.