Chef Jack Lee’s life showcases the power of the human spirit, the rewards of relentlessness and the true measure of a man.

Written by Li Sapp-Weaver & Nina Giovannitti

It’s a warm, starlit November night at the historic Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. Celebrity Chef Jack Lee has teamed with event producer Cory Martin to present An Evening of Elegance with previews of 2014 models from Rolls Royce and Bentley, access to an interior designer showcase within the mansion and, of course, haute cuisine by Jack for 200 privately-invited attendees. The crowd is filled with the Hollywood elite – billionaires, TV executives, celebrities and international press. Jack is in his element. He’s laughing with his guests, making new friends and feeding everyone with an infectious smile.

jack lee discusses food family focus

Although it was his night, moments like this Evening of Elegance humble Jack Lee. On one hand, the evening celebrated the celebrity chef’s rising Q score. Jack recently appeared on Food Network‘s hit show “Cutthroat Kitchen” and served as a guest judge on the finale of “Rachael vs. Guy: KIDS” with high-profile chefs Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri. Yet, the event had a deeper meaning. It allowed Jack to thank friends, clients and media that had supported him throughout his career, and particularly, one of the darkest moments in his life.

The last childhood memory Jack has of his mother is her tear-streaked face. His father had died unexpectedly and while still grieving, the young boy found his mother putting him on a boat to America just five days after his loss. It was 1981. Resources were scarce in Vietnam and the atmosphere was dangerous. His mom had sold everything she could to acquire enough gold to pay for ten year old Jack’s departure.

Her sole motivation was love. Jack’s young mother, then pregnant with her fourth child, desperately wanted to protect her son after losing her husband so suddenly. “She told me I was going on a boat ride and that it was good for me… that I should be good. I had a sponsorship to Los Angeles but I didn’t get what was happening or why she was sending me away, even as [they] shot at us on the day I left.”

In LA, food immediately tinted Jack’s young life. “I was eleven and a prep-boy chopping vegetables for $2.15 an hour in a Chinese restaurant. It was hard work for a kid,” he reminisces with a distant look. He cried every night and suffered constant beatings and verbal barrages so that he could send all monies possible back to his mother. Although he wouldn’t see his mother or meet that baby brother for eighteen years, Jack endured. “I will do anything to take care of my family.”

Needing an English teacher, he found one in the legendary actor John Ritter. Although they never met, the character of Jack Tripper on the famous sitcom “Three’s Company” changed Jack Lee’s life. Watching the quintessential, all-American, fun-loving chef portrayal on TV helped Jack start learning English. It even sparked the idea of food as his future. Tripper managed to uplift Jack’s spirit. “Seeing him cook made me think I could become a chef, too. And I started cooking every meal for my family.”

After culinary school, Jack was determined to work with the best chefs in the world. “You must have passion, dedication and persistence,” Jack asserts without apology. He started with the most high-end resource he could access. “I knew I wanted to work for the great Chef Humberto Contreras at the Hotel Bel Air. So, I applied many, many times, always trying to prove myself. He looked me up and down and told me I didn’t have what it took. But I kept coming back. He finally took me on after I committed to volunteering for a full year. I made garnishes for free for ten hours a day, five days a week.” The work was grueling and intricate but it would also define his niche in the food world.

“Working with garnishes every day made me realize the importance of presentation. We eat with our eyes. Making beautiful food can honor the food we eat.” The hard work paid off when Jack was anointed Banquet Chef at Hotel Bel Air, a position he held for six years. He started building celebrity relationships by cooking for notable names like Angelina Jolie and doing exclusive events such as Oprah’s Wedding of the Century, a million dollar wedding that the billionairess gifted to one of her viewers.

 

Eventually, Jack went solo to promote his unique culinary style. Combining the Asian street food of his youth with the French technique he learned in Chef Humberto’s kitchen, Jack created his own nouveau cuisine. He became a go-to for the wow factor amongst Bel Air and Beverly Hills denizens and worked with heavyweights like “Survivor” and “Apprentice” show creator Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey. Jack was building a career and reputation that would make his mother, siblings, wife and children proud. Then, the inexplicable happened.

 

Threatened by severe sleep apnea that was stopping his breathing and endangering his life, Jack was forced to undergo a series of agonizing surgeries. A long pause was knocked in his fast-paced life. The surgeries disrupted everything. He lost his taste buds for several months; this is unimaginable for a chef. He was disfigured and scared to look in the mirror.

 

Unable to work, Jack reflected on his life and his family. The determination he had as a child to take care of his mother from the other side of the world rebounded in him for his wife and children. Jack refused to give up hope.

 

A year later, Jack was working again on something different, a food collection inspired by his downtime that he entitled, “My True Colors.” Literally a visual culinary representation of his insular journey, the first plate represents the color Black. It’s displayed through Kobe Filet Mignon, perfectly rare, surrounded by a dark King Oyster and Shallot Jus. Jack explains, “After my ten hours of surgery, all I noticed was my jaw was wired shut and still bleeding from the operation. The world in my mind was so dark and cold, almost black.”

 

Yet, the chef doesn’t linger in this darkness. His collection eventually graduates to Gold in its seventh course, Golden Free Range Venison Osso Bucco with Golden Saffron Risotto. “Knowing there were a lot of golden opportunities to continue to work and reconnect with my old clients, I made golden dish full of hope,” Jack states with wide eyes. Finally, his last course is a sweet medley of exotic fruits with mini cheesecake and strawberry coulis, “My life was all sweet from here!” He follows this exclamation with a billowing laugh.

jack lee discusses food family

It’s clear that Jack chooses happiness in his life despite pain or setbacks. Since that horrendous health scare, the chef has become a celebrated expert one beautifully delicious cuisine and expanded his ever-growing list of affluent clientele. People may look at Jack and see an opulent lifestyle of tailored suits and exclusive parties but this isn’t the center of his philosophy. Understanding the power of hope and joy makes him want to fill those around him with just that.

 

“Life should be full of happiness. That’s what I want to do, supply the eater with nutrients and happiness… make people pause and have a moment instead of shoveling food in your mouth without thought.”

 

“I want my plates to look sexy and inviting and my dedication to teaching at-home cooks my secrets to plate arranging is big. I know from my own family how much more my kids eat and enjoy the food when it looks fun and tempting. I always take the time, no matter how tired or busy I am to present each plate and it makes everyday a special occasion. Intricacy makes food special for everyone.”

 

In the market recently, Jack asked his kids to grab some tomatoes and they expertly asked, “Hot house, heirloom, plum, cherry or grape?” It seems his philosophy is spreading.