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The Sweet Life - Secret of BCD Tofu House

KoreAm Journal, Feature, Posted: May 26, 2008

As lunchtime chatter amplifies through the restaurant, Hee Sook Lee watches carefully as a KoreAm photographer takes a leaf of crisp cabbage and tops it with a slice of grilled meat.

"Scrape on the miso paste," Lee says in a warm, motherly fashion.

The photographer follows her command, adds on a sesame leaf and a sliver of kimchi and then folds the culinary creation into his hand. "It's like a lettuce taco," he observes.

"Yes!" she says with a laugh. "A lettuce taco."

It is the passion for her product and care for her customers that has helped make Lee an ambassador for Seoul food. While "lettuce tacos" make for tasty appetizers, tofu stew, or sundubu, is her specialty. Hers, she says, has a "taste you cannot forget."

Lee, 49, is the founder and CEO of BCD Tofu House, a Los Angeles-based restaurant chain with more than a dozen locations in Southern California, Seattle, Japan and Korea. She doesn't speak much English and communicates what she can through the help of a translator. Though good food, she has found, can break all barriers.

She first learned how to cook from her mother in Korea. Growing up, she loved the warm comforts of jjigae (stew).

After starting a family, she moved to Los Angeles in 1989 so that her two eldest sons could attend school in the States. Three years later, her husband, Tae Lee, followed with their youngest son.

Lee studied graphic design at Santa Monica College, but says she never wanted to be a designer. Instead, she wanted to open a restaurant.

So she borrowed a recipe for sundubu from her relatives in Korea and tweaked it. It was a long process of trial and error, she says. The final dish is a bright-red bubbly soup made of red pepper, soy sauce, garlic and other seasonings. Submerged inside are chunks of soft tofu, along with the customer's choice of meat, seafood or vegetables. The exact recipe is a secret she won't share with anyone.

In 1996, she opened her first BCD Tofu House on the corner of 2nd Street and Vermont in Koreatown. The name stands for Bukchangdong, an area in Seoul. "It's the city of the IRS," she explains. "All the riches come from Bukchangdong."

There were long lines from the start, Lee says. For many non-Koreans, dining at BCD was a new cultural experience. Lee would sometimes demonstrate how to eat the banchan - little side dishes such as potato salad, fried fish and cucumbers topped with ice. When the sundubu would arrive on their tables in heavy stone pots, Lee would explain some of the ingredients.

"Americans were not used to boiling food," she says. "But after they tasted it, they visited again and again. It was sundubu mania. I felt proud."

Today, Lee wakes up at 6 a.m., and after reading the Korean newspaper, chatting with her husband and praying, goes off to make 50 to 70 gallons of secret seasoning to distribute to all her U.S. restaurants.

She'll often visit the locations in L.A., making sure the tables are clean and the dishes are made just right. If the kitchen gets backed up, she'll jump in and help, no matter what she's wearing. Several years back, she decided to keep most of the locations open 24 hours when she saw that folks out on the town were looking for a hearty meal long after most restaurants had closed.

"I'd always say come in, come in," she recalls. "I could not close."

Two years ago, Lee opened a factory in Gardena, Calif., that manufactures bottled kimchi and salted squid under the brand name BCD Foods. Her goal is for BCD to grow into a complete food company that also produces drinks, snacks and desserts. She plans to open a BCD restaurant in China.

"I want to spread Korean food all over the world, to people who've never had it before," she says. Printed on every menu is the company's promise to customers: "To serve with clean hands, to serve with a warm heart, to serve the best."

Lee says being female has never posed any challenges in her career. "It's more beneficial," she explains. "In the service business, people think women know the most. Women can do everything."

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