Pork barbecue, corn bread, black-eyed peas, fried green tomatoes — and Korean-style chicken and dumplings. When Southern soul food comes to mind, flavors of Eastern cuisine are not usually part of the picture. For restaurant consultant and chef Debbie Lee, however, the two go together like a hot summer night and a glass of sweet tea.
"The way that I put my point of view out there is 'Seoul to Soul,'" Lee said. "It's a little bit of Korean, and a little bit of soul food, or country food, all together on one plate."
Lee’s signature creations are just one of the many reasons she was selected to compete on season five of The Next Food Network Star, which premieres on June 7.
“Debbie is funny, gutsy and confident,” said Bob Tuschman, senior vice president of Food Network programming and a judge on the show. “I love her unique culinary point of view, which produced imaginative and delicious dishes. On-camera, Debbie has the ease and warmth of someone who has been doing this a long time. That type of confidence is hard to find.”
Lee, who studied drama and political science in USC College, was born in the United States and spent her childhood in Arizona. She learned to cook Southern staples from her mother, who emigrated from Korea before learning how to make the traditional foods of her native country. Lee’s Korean culinary chops can be attributed to her grandmother and the days Lee spent cooking with her as a child.
“My grandmother speaks no English, I speak barely any Korean. When I was dropped off at my grandparents’ for the weekend, I didn’t know what to do other than stay with my grandmother in the kitchen,” Lee said. “Through sign language, I learned to cook Korean cuisine.”
For Lee, learning the two cuisines and how to combine them also helped shape her identity. “Food was an integral part for me in finding a way to assimilate in life,” she said. “My food tends to be what I would consider world fusion because my own personal background is a combination of two different cultures.”
After moving to Los Angeles and considering several career options while taking undergraduate classes, Lee was still unsure about what path was right for her. Eventually, she got a taste of the restaurant business while working as a waitress and decided that she would make her living in the kitchen.
As she progressed in her career, Lee had to rely on her strong culinary point of view to succeed in the typically male-centric industry.
She often found herself the only woman in a kitchen full of men. “But I really showed them. I said, I know you guys are laughing, saying ‘There’s this little Asian American girl, what’s she going to do?’ ” Lee said. But all jokes aside, she persevered. “I worked my way up.”
Many culinary milestones down the road, she found herself auditioning for The Next Food Network Star at the urging of her friends. Then, in December 2008, she learned that she was selected as one of season five’s 10 contestants.
In this hit Food Network show, finalists compete to win their own series on the network. Past winners include season four’s Aaron McCargo Jr., who now hosts Big Daddy’s House, and Guy Fieri, winner of season two and the host of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives as well as two other Food Network shows.
The audition process is just the beginning, as the stars-to-be must also survive the various challenges posed by the network’s acclaimed chefs. Each episode includes a culinary competition, a critique by chefs, and finally, the dreaded elimination of a contestant. The 10 contenders must not only be excellent cooks, but also entertainers, innovators, electric personalities, and quick thinkers. They must learn to deal with a cluster of cameras catching their every culinary move, good and bad.
“At first, you’re just trying to get acclimated to it,” Lee said, describing the atmosphere, and the feeling of being recorded every moment. But eventually, the newness of the situation passes. “You get used to all the cameras. You just start to pretend they’re not there.”
The nine-week filming was finished in the beginning of May. During that time, the 10 contestants lived together in one house, sharing family meals and getting to know one another.
Despite the often drama-filled depictions of reality television interactions, Lee said that the experience left her with an extended family of fellow cooks. “We really love each other,” she said. “And we all keep in touch on a daily basis. It’s like we never left.”
Although she couldn’t share the results of the televised competition, Lee did say the past few months not only changed her as a chef, but as a person.
“I’m going to be 40 this year,” she said. “And I thought to myself, ‘I know who I am.’ Then you go through this, and you learn so much about yourself.”
“It’s truly an amazing experience.”