FROM SETBACKS TO SUCCESS, CHEF PETE DISCUSSES HIS CULINARY JOURNEY
WRITTEN BY: AVRA KOUFFMAN | PHOTOGRAPHED BY: JORDANA SHEARA
Chef Pete Lee has packed a lot of culinary adventures into his 43 years. Before creating Chef Pete’s Catering Company in Orange County, Pete was a chef in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Maui. He has cooked for athletes and movie stars and catered charitable events for kids, seniors and medical research. In 2014, his cooking talents were showcased on the Food Network’s “Chopped, ” where he advanced to the final round and came in just one point shy of the winning score.
Pete’s contemporary American style-cuisine is acclaimed for its blend of diverse cuisines. “America’s culinary landscape has been influenced by so many ethnic heritages, ” he said. As a chef, he brings a lot to the table, including a wide-ranging interest in the cultures whose food he enjoys. Prior to culinary school, Pete studied art; before that, he traveled the globe as a flight attendant. Both interests contribute to his cooking style, which features beautifully-presented dishes inspired by his travels.
Maybe the most inspirational of Pete’s journeys is his recovery from colon cancer. After a shocking diagnosis of stage 3 colon cancer four years ago, he was rushed into surgery at Hoag Hospital. Chemo took its toll and Pete had to retrain his muscles to perform tasks he used to handle with expertise. He credits his support network of family and friends for helping him through that difficult time. When he realized catering was a good way to ease back into the work world, his friends were among his first customers. Today, he serves a diverse clientele.
Talking to Pete, I was impressed by how much intelligence and research goes into his cooking. It’s amazing to hear him roll complicated recipes off his tongue. “One of my hobbies is collecting cookbooks, ” he said. “I have so many recipes in my head!” For Pete, cooking is 50 percent a physical discipline and 50 percent a mental one. “The body only follows the mind, ” he explained. “When you’re a chef in a restaurant kitchen, so much goes on at once. Sometimes you just have to step back and watch everything and assess what’s going on, like, ‘Okay, this guy’s cutting this wrong.’ Then you’ve got to go in and give him a quick demo.”
Although the catering business has its challenges, Pete says happy clients make it worthwhile. “People want to feel special with catering. You have to give them attention. That’s the service part you provide.” Praise from customers lets him know he has succeeded. “When people come up to you and say, ‘This is great, we love the food, we love the service, we love what you did, ’ it makes it all worth it, because you worked so hard to provide them the service and the food, and you’re selling an experience.”
Chef Pete talked to LOCALE about his philosophy and approach to cooking and life.
Q: What would you like people to know about you?
Pete Lee: The thing about me is I never give up on what I want to do. I love cooking. Going through cancer is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I went through six months of chemo. Chemo killed all my nerves, and the doctor said they would take a year to regenerate back, so I was disabled for a while. That was hard. Working my way back to gaining strength and endurance for the kitchen was hard. I lost my muscle memory. I forgot how to surf, lost my knife skills…I had to retrain myself. I just never quit. I kept persisting, getting back in surfing shape and getting my knife skills back so I could cook. I’ve been blessed. I feel very lucky to be alive. I’m surrounded by friends, family and a good support group, so I’m really happy. When you come so close to death, you have a really different perspective on how life is, and you let things go a lot easier.
Q: How did you retrain yourself to get your knife skills back?
PL: I started cutting carrots, onions, celery…going back to basic cooking skills. A lot of chefs cut cheap vegetables to fine-tune their knife skills. Once you do that, you can cut other ingredients that are a little more expensive. In culinary school, they have you cut all the slices—Brunoise, Chiffonade, Julienne—because in a kitchen, you’re in a fast-paced environment. You tell your cooks, “I Need Brunoise steamed, I need medium dice” and they should know what that means. These are all technical words we use in a kitchen when we communicate with one another. It took me six months to get my knife skills back.
Q: When did all of this happen?
PL: My cancer happened around December 2010. I moved to Orange County from Hawaii in 2009 to be closer to my parents. I was having stomach pains. I had a colonoscopy and the doctor said, “Can you come back with your family?” I thought, that can’t be good. My sister and mom showed me the X-ray. There was a cancerous tumor on my upper colon. They said, “We have to operate on you right away, ” because it was stage 3 by the time they found it. I didn’t have time to think about anything. I went to the ER at Hoag. They removed my gallbladder and cut out a section of my colon. I didn’t know until my sister told me, but I had a 57 percent chance of surviving the surgery, and I did. I credit Dr. Francis Lee, the surgeon, for saving me.
Q: Did you have to make some dietary changes post-surgery?
PL: Yes. Even as a kid growing up in Taiwan, ages one to five, I had a really weak digestive system. I was in and out of hospitals. I ate a lot of red meat and junk food. Drinking and partying, the lifestyle of a chef, didn’t help. My doctor said to stay away from red meat, barbecue and charred meat, which is very carcinogenic. He said to eat more vegetables. It wasn’t tough to make the changes. For example, I just had a piece of six-ounce filet mignon that I cooked for a birthday party. Once a month, or every two months, it’s ok. But eating an eight-ounce steak—a medium rare that will sit in your stomach and take forever—I don’t do that often anymore. When I do eat red meat, I try to eat braised meat. It’s a lot easier on your digestive system. I also eat a lot of chicken, and I love fish. One of my friends is a vegan chef who owns Seabirds Kitchen in Costa Mesa. When I eat her food, I feel healthy, and it’s a lot easier for your body to digest.
Q: How did you originally get into the food industry?
PL: I got my talent from my dad. He’s a master chef. In the mid-1980s, he was the executive chef at the Mandarin in Beverly Hills, and he received a lot of awards. It really catapulted his career. He was on that show, “Eye on LA.” He influenced me a lot as far as Chinese cuisine, and culinary school provided me the French training. My mother’s contribution, when I was a kid, was to introduce us to other ethnic cuisines—Jamaican, Cuban, Indian, Lebanese. That’s how I developed an eclectic, diverse palate. I grew up with so many ethnic foods, eating around LA. My first job in junior high school was at Burger King, and in college, I was a vegetarian for three months while I worked at Souplantation.
Q: What did the Burger King job teach you about food?
PL: It was an interesting experience, my first job. In the 1980s, kids growing up in America always had a fast food job, so that was mine. I was just in it for the paycheck. I actually started cooking pretty late compared to other people. I started cooking professionally at 26. At 21, I worked for Northwest Air as a flight attendant because I spoke fluent Mandarin. I flew for two years and then went to college. I studied fine arts with a minor in business. I never finished; I got my AA. I was thinking of transferring to UCLA because they have a really good fine arts department. During that time, a friend of mine committed suicide, so that was really hard for me. I just got really depressed and lost focus, so my dad approached me and said, “What do you think about cooking and becoming a chef? You’re in your mid-20s, what are you going to do with your life?” I thought about it for a month and applied to the California Culinary Academy.
Q: How would you sum up your cooking style?
PL: Universal! Chinese and Western cuisine are very different. In a Chinese kitchen, you use a wok instead of a sauté pan. In general, it has higher efficiency. It’s quite interesting, just the way it’s engineered. When you go to a Chinese restaurant, you’ll see it. They come out with food really fast. Everything is prepped in bite size pieces, ready to go. If you look at Western and French cooking, a lot of detail goes into it. I look at food on a global scale. I like to use cooking techniques from a wide range of cuisines. When I became a chef, I picked three cuisines I really wanted to study. Besides the food, I really liked the history and culture—Italian, French, Japanese, and, of course, Chinese from my father. There are so many types of food out there! Asia’s a big place. South America would be another one. There’s a reason why I have a world map—it reflects the food I make. People always ask me what kind of cuisine I do. I usually tell them contemporary American and explain how America is a melting pot. I do a little bit of everything with a French-trained cooking technique. I’ll make tandoori chicken wings or Jamaican jerk kabobs for a party. I draw influence from everywhere. Maybe I’ll go to a Thai restaurant and have a dish and like it, so I’ll probably go out and try to tweak it and make it.
Q: What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of California cuisine?
PL: California cuisine is great because of our climate and geography. We have the San Joaquin that produces produce year round, and we have the wine country that really influences the cuisine. It’s the backbone of my cooking, because there are so many influences: Asian, European, Latin…it’s good to be a chef in California! I mean, it’s good to be a chef in New York, but in winter, it snows. You’re not going to get the fresh produce you have out here!
Q: Is OC food culture in a good state?
PL: Yes, there’s plenty, but one thing I know for sure is that the next generation of American chefs will be way better compared to my generation. It’s a whole generation of kids who grew up watching the Food Network. They know their ingredients! We’re talking nine, ten years old. It’s going to rock because these kids are so passionate about cooking at an early age. Imagine that potential.
Q: What’s the one dish you’d recommend to people who don’t really know how to cook?
PL: Chicken piccata. It has six or seven ingredients, and the technique is super-simple. It’s what I teach people when they don’t have broad culinary skills. My best friend doesn’t cook that often, but I told him, “You need a go-to dish when a lady comes over, and you’re entertaining! For a date, it’s always nice to prepare a meal.” I chose chicken because some people don’t eat red meat, but most consume chicken. I figure it’s a good ingredient that will satisfy the majority of people. It’s very simple, with a nice flavor profile.
Q: How did your catering company come about?
PL: I got diagnosed with cancer in December 2010. The catering business came around September 2011. Since I was disabled, I couldn’t really work for other people, and I had to think about how I was going to survive and pay the bills. A friend of mine in Newport Beach, Dana, asked if I could cater her Rosh Hashanah party and I did, and that gave me an idea. Dana really helped me out; she told all her other friends. I built the business for two and a half years, all word of mouth, based on referrals.
Q: Do you prefer having your own business as opposed to working in someone else’s restaurant?
PL: There are advantages and disadvantages. What’s great about having my own business is that I set my own hours. I cook what I want to cook and what I want to sell. Chefs go through a long period where they’re cooking for other chefs and doing their food, and once they become an executive chef, they cook food that they want to do. A disadvantage is the seasonal nature of catering. My busy season is the holidays, but then February is slow, so it’s like, “Oh, how am I going to pay the bills?” It’s always a challenge. A restaurant kitchen is chaos, and you have to organize and overcome that chaos. But in catering, when you go to a job site or a venue you’ve never been to, you really don’t know what to expect, and if you’ve got to use their kitchen, there’s a lot of troubleshooting, a lot of system-implementing. There’s communication from staff, setting up the layout, setting up the service, transporting the food and equipment, having all the staff show up dressed in uniform, ready to go… the list goes on. There are a lot of variables for you to fail, but you just have to think on your feet when those problems occur.
Q: When things go wrong in a kitchen, how do you keep your cool?
PL: I give myself five minutes because it’s such a hot environment on the line. So I go to the walk-in refrigerator to cool off. Most chefs have meetings with their cooks in the walk-in. We talk about things in there because nobody can hear!
Q: How many hours a week would you say you spend cooking?
PL: This past weekend, I had two events. For both events, it took about four to five days of planning, prepping and transporting the food from A to Z. I have an on-call staff of cooks and bartenders I work with, depending on how large the event is. The process of my catering business is first to contact the client through email, and then write them a mini-option, which is a list of dishes they can choose from. Once they choose, I move forward and do the food costs and send them a quote. I’ve catered for four people, and I’ve catered for 150. When I catered for 150, there were two other cooks, 10 servers and two bartenders. For four people, I did it by myself!
Q: Many people probably assume catering is too expensive for them.
PL: One of my catering philosophies is that I want to make it affordable to everyone. It’s definitely a luxury service, and most of the people I cater for are very wealthy, but I want people who are on a strict budget to have the opportunity to experience a good experience with a caterer. I really try to keep my rates reasonable. People can contact me or look through my website. I try to keep it on a case-to-case basis.
Q: In 2014, you were on the TV show “Chopped.” How was that?
PL: Super intense, but overall, it was a great experience. It was my first cooking competition and my first time being on TV. There are three rounds: appetizer, entrée and dessert. There are four mystery ingredients each round. You have a mystery basket in front of you. Once the judge says, “The time starts now, ” you just go! The appetizer round is 20 minutes. You start with four chefs. By the dessert round, you have two chefs. Whoever has the strongest dish advances forward. Whoever has the weakest dish gets chopped!
Q: What did you make?
PL: For the first round, the mystery ingredients were horchata liqueur, pupusas, black beans in a can and blowfish tail. With the blowfish, I made a tempura batter. I made a puree out of the black beans. I tried to reduce the horchata liqueur to a syrup, but it got too sweet. I didn’t know if I’d get chopped the first round; nobody did! The entrée round was bone-on chicken breast, date palm nettles in a brine, pumpkin puree in a can and salami. I took the bones off the breast and used the leftover bones and made a sauce out of it with white wine, sage, mustard and chicken broth. I attempted to make a Tuscan dish called saltimbocca, but I used chicken breast, sliced salami and sage. You sear both sides. I put mozzarella on top of it. For the pumpkin puree in a can, I just added cinnamon and ginger with butter and cream. Date palm nettles taste like baby artichoke hearts with the texture of baby corn. For the dessert round, the mystery ingredients were coconut butter, Jordan almonds, bananas and basil juice. I made a microwave sponge cake. I caramelized the bananas and made banana fosters. The Jordan almonds I put in a food processor and crumbled. The basil juice was super bitter, so I just added a few drops of it into my microwave sponge cake batter.
Q: Were you happy with how your dishes turned out?
PL: I was, but I forgot one important ingredient for the sponge cake recipe—a tablespoon of baking soda—so my cake turned out dense, and that’s what I got chopped for. When I went back for my interview with the producers and asked, “How much did I lose by?” they said, “One point!” so it was super close!
Q: Would you like to continue with TV?
PL: Definitely! Before I left, I had three producers ask me about “Chopped Redemption, ” which is for contestants who came really close. I said, “Send me an email, and I’ll be back in a heartbeat!” After my episode had aired, I was getting emails from cancer survivors that were really heartfelt. There’s no monetary value for people to reach out to you like that. It makes you think, “Wow, I touched these people’s lives and accomplished a positive thing, and they can go out and accomplish their dreams.” I want to do more philanthropy work. I think it’s important to give back to the community, especially for me. It’s good to put yourself in a position where you can give back. I couldn’t have gotten where I am without help from friends and sometimes even from strangers. how to overcome life through food
Q: Do you see yourself staying in the food service industry all your life?
PL: Absolutely! I think God put me on this planet to be a chef. Cooking chose me. Cooking itself takes a long time to master—from your knife skills, to how to break down and fabricate meat to making different sauces. And now modern chefs have to know more than one cuisine. The majority of chefs now are like me, French-trained with French cooking techniques, but some will veer out into Peruvian food, Thai food, or Japanese food. You’ve got to know such a diverse range of ingredients and to know how to treat it and what techniques to use when you execute it. It’s endless! I think life itself is an endless education and, for a chef, you have to always go out and seek knowledge—reading, doing research, testing out recipes, traveling. If you grew up in LA and you’re making Italian food, it’s important that you travel to Italy and experience the whole deal, the whole package, the history, the culture, the people and the anthropology of where the dishes come from. That’s the connection between a chef and his craft and the food that he produces