Meet Chef Pete Lee

One of the reasons that this website is not just a chronicle of food and what we think about it is because we are more interested in the story behind the dishes. Food is not just a representation of the ingredients coming together but also an extension of the chef's personality and history. When I was approached to hear more about Chef Pete Lee's story, I was intrigued by his background both in the culinary and personal realms. A promising and established chef who had gone through working in places such as Spago in Maui, Momo's Bistro in Los Angeles, Rubicon in San Francisco, and Maki Maki in Irvine, Chef Pete was surprised one day in 2011 with a stage-3 colon cancer diagnosis. After months of chemotherapy (the last injection of which caused nerve damage that took nearly a year to recover from), he found himself on a different path to continuing his passion for cooking by starting up his own catering business. Eventually, a restaurant will be the goal but for now, we learned his story of how he got to Chef Pete's Catering and exactly why he developed a passion for the culinary arts.

"Cooking chose me. I think I was put on Earth to be a chef, and I will be doing this the rest of my life."

Growing up in Los Angeles, Chef Pete was immersed in the restaurant world from the get-go. His parents owned several establishments in the area so he grew up in the environment. Initially, he was steered away from the lifestyle by his own parents who worked seven days a week and did not wish the life upon their children. However, after studying Fine Arts and deciding to pursue admission to UCLA after receiving his AA degree, Pete was approached by his father to become a chef since it was "a skill you could fall back on." A month's consideration went into this proposition before he enrolled at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco to establish his background. Though encouraged not to get into the restaurant business, his own sister became involved as well as a restaurateur; his father continues to consult.
"There are so many people out there cooking now, it's crazy. Everybody wants to be a chef. When I meet kids and do cooking demos at farmers' markets, they are SO knowledgeable. The next generation will be super talented. They grew up with the Food Network. Chefs are definitely getting younger and younger."
Despite all of his restaurant background, Chef Pete is now cooking for his own clients as part of his self-made business. He claimed that working for one's self is difficult but freeing and recommends that students wanting to jump into the industry should start their foundation in a good culinary program, not just one judged by the cost. Schooling can be expensive so he suggested that Orange County youths consider OCC as they have a great program. Now, this is just to build the foundation of techniques and how to run a business; Pete still points out that he only really started learning once he started work in restaurants and for other chefs.

Where does your inspiration come from?
"My foundation is French but I did Chinese food with dad so I am all over the map in terms of influence. I love food of all ethnic types; growing up in the industry, my mom would take the kids to ethnic places so we grew up with varied palates. So, my inspiration comes from all over the world. If you have to name it, I'd call it contemporary American because I think of the country as a big melting pot."
A large world map spans the wall facing his home kitchen and though at first, I assumed it was for decoration, I realized quickly that it meant more than that. Marked with some places where Pete has traveled, the wide artwork is a reminder to him (he tells me) to travel often and remember that food is universal but cultural with its own story. His traveling repertoire include places like Taipei where the street food lingers in his mind and Ecuador where he was inspired by a beachside ceviche dish with coconut husks and plantains - he now makes a shrimp ceviche with fried plantains as part of his menu.
Do you have a favorite ingredient to use?
"I like working with seafood being a surfer and growing up by the ocean. I love working with different fish. When I was living in Hawaii, there were so many different Hawaiian fish to work with. If I was going to narrow it down to one ingredient, I couldn't tell you."
Though we couldn't wriggle a favorite ingredient out of him, he confessed that it was difficult because he thinks about food all the time, especially into the late night. This leads to next-day purchases just to execute ideas in his mind that sometimes work but also sometimes fail. He shared with us an example of a brilliant dish he created braising pork belly in sake, soy sauce, ginger, sugar, and green onions; this became the Braised Cantonese-Style Pork Belly with Pineapple Chutney he'll contribute to his menus. However, failures happen too. Pete recalls trying to tweak a Miso Black Cod dish by adding Chinese okra with a watercress emulsion over jasmine rice to everyone's dismay. Not everything works out after all!

Are there chefs you look up to?
"My dad. Thomas Keller. Brian Lewis whom I worked for up in San Francisco; he has Elm Restaurant in Connecticut now. Marcus Samuelsson - he does a lot of charity work and watching him compete on Top Chef Masters was inspiring. When you see chefs compete and cook, you get mad respect for what they go through. I got to meet him a couple times which was a cool experience."
As I interviewed, Chef Pete worked on some courses for us to try. His first was a Mediterranean dish made of a Goat Cheese Croquette Over Grilled Vegetables (ex. Portobello mushrooms) with balsamic dressing, balsamic reduction, and basil oil atop romesco sauce. The piping hot deep-fried croquette had a satisfying crunch as we broke off pieces to let it cool down. The preemptive cooling seemed nearly unnecessary though once mixed with the much cooler vegetables which had been grilled but left out to lose heat. All together, the flavors played very well together with varied textures from top to bottom.

Our second course that afternoon was inspired from a similar dish Chef Pete had put together at Maki Maki but never finalized - Steamed Chilean Sea Bass wrapped in Savoy Cabbage (fish seasoned with white pepper, salt, and freshly minced ginger over stir-fried vegetables and a puree of roasted shallots in dashi broth accompanied by chili oil and ponzu reduction).  Though we were initially worried that the shallot would be too strong, the inclusion of ginger cut through it as well as the dashi's saltiness. The dish was well-balanced in most of the flavors save for the chili oil - more spice please! When we inquired if he was satisfied with the dish himself, Chef Pete only said it was okay.

"I'm never satisfied with my food; once you get happy with it, you become relaxed and only stroke your ego. I always pursue excellence but try to remember that as long as the people I cook for like it and are happy, that's what to shoot for. If they say my food sucks, I'll start looking for another career."
These tastings were examples of the courses Chef Pete's Catering can do but the company is not limited to doing only entree-sized plates or only small shared plates. Willing to do single bites for wine pairing dinners but also large parties, the chef has handled various types of clients in the southern California area and will continue to do so as each event is unique.

What makes your catering stand out?
"My niche is custom, creative menus whether you have a dietary restriction or not. One of my clients is gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, nut-free, and egg-free but I've done their Christmas party and three different cooking classes with South American, Mediterranean, and Asian cuisines. It took two days of research and was challenging substituting ingredients but I had to make it happen for them. I think some chefs won't want to deal with something like that but I try to be flexible. If they came to me with a budget, I'd try to deliver good food but I work with quality ingredients. I want to offer that service to everybody. I keep it simple and try to give people reasonable deals."
We were greatly impressed by Chef Pete's willingness (and past experiences) to work with restrictions whether they be dietary or budgetary. Not all of the food has to be complicated though we got to taste some with a little bit more pizzazz. To round out the meal was a Chocolate Lava Cake with raspberry spheres, candied orange zest, and an Italian meringue quenelle. The cake was rich in flavor though there was hardly an oozing of the "lava" in the center and the spheres added a nice touch. We found the zest too sugary and overpowering when eaten all together though the dessert was fine without such zeal into picking each spiral up. He had explained to us the intricacies and differences between Swiss, Italian, and American meringues prior to serving the dish so it was obvious he knew his material though; that part of the cake was a treat. However, as we ate, all we could think about was his previous comments about one of his signature desserts: Bananas Foster Egg Rolls made of diced, caramelized bananas mixed with raisins, cinnamon, and nutmeg before being rolled into a wrapper and deep-fried. I'd love some of the cayenne ganache that comes with as well!

Overall, what a pleasure to meet someone always looking to improve and best the challenges that life throws his way whether it be cancer or failed dishes. We enjoyed our time getting to know Chef Pete and can see why Chef Pete's Catering will likely flourish in southern California; he sure knows his cooking!

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.