Vivian Lee, 42, creates art with the construction of her internationally influenced sandwiches. It’s no wonder with her background and education. Growing up outside of New York City, she graduated from Parsons School of Design with a degree in fine arts and worked as a floral designer. More education came from the University of Connecticut, where she garnered a degree in landscape architecture, in which she worked for years. With a culinary calling, she graduated from the French Culinary Institute with a focus on bread.
This all comes together in Lee’s sandwiches. Consider her Korean barbecue sandwich. “The bread is more than what holds things together,” she said. It binds with texture and flavors she considers when building sandwiches that bridge her love of Southern food and her Korean heritage. Its springy structure and crumb tells Lee’s story as much as her restaurant, Leftie Lee’s, named for her daughter. “Geneva is very much left-handed. I call her ‘Leftie Lou.’” Lee combined her nickname with their surname for the restaurant’s name.
Q: What is your go-to dish for a quick dinner?
A: I’ve been eating a lot more seafood and my daughter really loves fish sticks, so lately I’ve been doing this thing where I take sticky rice and put fish sticks in and get an egg either fried or soft boiled and make a rice bowl with fish sticks. And then I put a nice sauce like tonkatsu on it.
Q: When time is not a factor, what dish do you like to prepare for a meal at home?
A: Pasta from scratch — something really simple like fresh tomato sauce or something as extreme as a Bolognese that I cook for three hours.
Q: What is your signature dish to impress dinner guests?
A: A Korean barbecue spread at home. I feel like that’s a big crowd-pleaser — different types of marinated meat, thinly sliced brisket, pork belly and I like to make corn cheese — it’s a big wow factor. An assortment of other things, Korean potato salad, japchae, kimchi and I always have some kind of stew in addition.
Q: What do you cook for yourself at the end of a long workday?
A: It depends on what I have on hand, but probably ramen noodles and I’ll throw in an egg and put a slice of cheese on there and maybe throw in some sliced hot dogs if I’m being really bad.
Q: What’s your favorite midnight snack?
A: I actually really love popcorn. I love it so much that I have been known to go into a movie theater just to buy popcorn and not even go into the movie.
Q: What is your favorite cookbook in your collection?
A: The one that is most inspiring to me is Edward Lee’s “Smoke and Pickles,” because of the Southern and Korean melding of ingredients that just resonated.
Q: What are your three favorite kitchen tools?
A: I definitely love my mandoline. It makes life easier. A Microplane for zesting and adventure. I love my bench knife. For mixing dough, it’s like an extension of your hand. You can use it to get chopped vegetables off a surface into a bowl, but you can also use it to shape really sticky dough.
Q: What is your best kitchen hack?
A: Using a cooling rack to smush eggs through to make egg salad. It’s so easy and fast, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Q: What ingredients do you always keep in your fridge?
A: Eggs. I eat so many eggs. When I was a kid, they called me “egg monster.” I do like to have some milk or dairy of some sort, mostly cream.
Q: What is your worst home cooking disaster?
A: More disappointing than disaster, but I made myself Bolognese with pasta from scratch. I finished this big project, put a bowl together. I set the bowl down to go to the bathroom and come out to my mom’s dog standing on top of the table eating my dinner.
Q: What music do you listen to when you cook?
A: I like chill music in general, mostly singer-songwriter stuff. Also, I grew up listening to a lot of classical. My mom went to Juilliard and my dad is a classical music aficionado.
Q: What are your best words of advice for home cooks?
A: To keep trying. So many people I meet think they can’t cook. Neither did I. It comes from years of experience from working at it. Keep trying new flavors, new recipes. If they don’t work out, you know you learned something from it.
Leftie Lee’s. 6 Olive St., Avondale Estates. leftielees.com.
Ramen Carbonara for One
Vivian Lee enjoys making this comforting dish at home. She says this Shin Ramen carbonara taps into her love for Italian cuisine — where most of her professional experience has been. “I love a good carbonara but I also love ramen, so I thought, ‘Let me see what happens if I use the ramen seasoning packet with ramen noodles but then do the cheese and bacon.’ And it’s really easy.”
1 slice bacon
1 large egg plus 1 yolk
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1/4-1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 (4.2-ounce) package ramen noodles, preferably Shin Ramen
Toasted sesame oil, sliced scallions, and furikake, for garnish (optional)
Slice bacon into 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch pieces. Place in cold frying pan and cook over medium heat until slightly crispy, drain on paper towel and set aside.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the egg, yolk, heavy cream, cheese, and half the ramen seasoning packet (more, if you prefer). Whisk thoroughly. Set aside.
Cook ramen noodles according to package directions. Do not discard the cooking water.
Using a pair of chopsticks or tongs, transfer the cooked noodles directly from the pot into the egg mixture. Give it a good toss, add some water from the pot 1/4 cup at a time. If you prefer a more cooked carbonara, return noodles and egg mixture to a clean pan and cook over medium heat to your liking, but before it’s scrambled. (Lee prefers a runny carbonara so she lets the residual heat from the noodles and cooking water bring it all together.) Garnish with toasted sesame oil, scallions and/or furikake.
Per serving, based on 1/2 cup Parmesan and half the ramen seasoning packet: 843 calories (percent of calories from fat, 41), 39 grams protein, 81 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams total sugars, 4 grams fiber, 37 grams total fat (21 grams saturated), 289 milligrams cholesterol, 1,736 milligrams sodium.
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