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Chef Jinhee Lee

After moving from South Korea to Calgary, Alberta, over 13 years ago, Chef Jinhee Lee secretly went to culinary school at SAIT to become a chef, rather than a business or finance woman as her family had desired.

Not only did she quickly become a top talented chef, but she had the trophy case and accolades to match: from receiving silver at the 2015 Gold Medal Plates to being on Avenue Calgary’s Top 5 People to Watch (2016) to winning the gold medal at the 2017 Canadian Culinary Championships.

After a brief return home last year to recoup from an injury, she followed through on a previously shelved dream and opened JinBar, a Korean-influenced comfort food eatery.

We stopped by Jin Bar to hear more of her incredible journey towards becoming Calgary’s Korean comfort go-to.

Jinbar has a simple credo of fried chicken and pizza, but the flavours are far from traditional. How did you first come up with the concept?

I recently went back to Korea where I went to recover my health from back problems. At the time, there was a pandemic happening and people were staying home and ordering food delivery. It was simple, good food that brought families together and made them enjoy their time.

Before I went back home to Korea, I was more into fine dining food, but coming back I felt like I could do more comfort food. I just want to bring the memories and exciting flavours of the food enjoyed there to the people here.

Korean fried chicken is more fun with flavour. You can combine any flavour you want to make the fried chicken exciting. When I was in Korea, I found it's now influenced by Western cultures so there's cheese in the fried chicken and that type of thing.

I always respect original flavours so I use original ingredients but with a little more twist added into it. For example, soy sauce is a staple Korean sauce but I wanted it to be a little more elevated so I infused apples, pears, onions, ginger, garlic and jalapenos, all that spicy, savoury, sweet kind of stuff.

My mom's favourite food is pizza. We'll go hiking and she'll want pizza. Korean pizza is much the same [as Korean Fried Chicken], there's no boundary. Whatever you want to put into your pizza, you can do.

In Korea, Bulgogi is a traditional food and they put it into pizza with a topping, creating a different kind of flavour. I really enjoyed it. I love pepperoni and Italian traditional pizza but it's fun to add a lot of cheese and different flavours. When we create our pizza menu, we're having fun. We ask ourselves, what is our favourite Korean food and how can we manage to get it into pizza?

How do guests respond to your dishes, seeing that they’re not “traditional” fried chicken or the usual pepperoni-type pizzas?

Our chicken is boneless chicken that's marinated for 12 hours and double-fried. Korean (single-)fried chicken is typically dipped into a glaze, which can make it soggy so we double-fry and people really enjoy it.

Let's talk about chefs. You spent a great deal of time working with Duncan Ly, both at Hotel Arts and then Foreign Concept. What was the reason that the relationship worked so well for so long, and when did you know you were ready to branch out on your own?

We went through tough times together and knew each other's personalities, how we work hard and understand each other really well. Calgary chefs are very tight, they're thinking of each other and taking care of each other. We know how tough this job is.

Once, I had a conversation with Duncan, I said I'd never be able to open a restaurant. There's money [needed] to pay the rent, to pay the employees, pay for the stuff. It seemed like a lot of headaches so I said I wasn't going to open my own place.

Then, when I was in Korea, I missed cooking and the time spent talking to my guests. I then said, okay, maybe I'm going to try and then I came back and opened in November.

What has been the hero dish that you know will resonate with guests and is easy to make, with your best margins?

The Ahi Tuna Crudo. I keep it here as a little bit more of a refined dish. It's delicate with pretty plating.

Speaking of inspiration, how did you find it for your dish today while using Lawry's Mango Habanero?

I love spice. In Korean food, it's usually spiced with fruits and marinades. So when I got Mango Habanero, it was like "whoa," that's a good one. Usually, people put it into seasoning for fries or wings and that kind of stuff. I wanted to make a sauce with it.

Mango and pineapple work well together so I made a creamy kind of dressing with the Mango Habanero and put it into the crispy iceberg lettuce. It's delicious, spicy and fresh.

Any message you’d like to pass on to your fellow restaurateurs from coast to coast as they too navigate Canada’s ever-changing foodservice landscape?

It's really tough. I'm always talking to myself to be positive. I'm passionate about what I'm doing and people are around me all the time. Even during the pandemic, we're busy. If restrictions happen, people support us with the takeout orders. I just want to be able to take care of my work crew here and treat them fairly. We do what we can.

I know it's a really tough time but be positive and treat your work family well.

Featured Recipes
Wedge Salad with Creamy Mango Habanero Dressing

2021 Edition of Coast to Coast
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