From her bedroom in an apartment she shared with a stranger in Little Five Points, Jiyeon Lee considered her bare-bones existence.
The year was 2006, and her room was so tiny she couldn’t fit a bed inside it, just a red, twin-sized futon mattress on the floor. After the failure of her business, her finances were in shambles. Also, she had just walked out on her 18-year marriage. She had barely any money in the bank and was earning $10 an hour making salads and desserts in a restaurant.
She had no idea how her life was about to change. How, in four years, she would be known throughout Atlanta and the South for … barbecue? As the co-owner of Heirloom Market BBQ in northwest Atlanta, Lee has led a new vanguard in the South, people who are using their immigrant experiences to transform the art of smoking meat. It routinely figures on best restaurant lists in Atlanta, and was recently named best barbecue in Georgia by Food & Wine magazine.
“She is a compelling figure who has figured out a way to marry two barbecue styles,” says Melissa Hall, co-director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which has invited Lee to cook and speak at the group’s annual symposium in October. “People like Jiyeon offer a glimpse of the future of barbecue that’s just as nuanced as its past.”
Frugal but flavorful
The deprivation Lee experienced in 2006 was nothing new. She had already known poverty of the worst kind, sharing a one-room basement apartment with her family of six.
She had also known fame and glamour, first as a fashion model and then as a teenage K-Pop starlet who cut four albums and toured Asia. She had known adventure, running off to America with a man she barely knew against her parents’ wishes.
Nearly two decades later, she was a 36-year-old novice cook and divorcee starting over. But every time she picked up a chef’s knife, her memories took her back to the time when it was just her and her grandmother. And she felt something she hadn’t in a very, very long time: Happy.
“She cooked so beautifully,” Lee says, recalling her halmoni’s delicate knife-cut noodles, fine ribbons as uniform as any from a packet. “Even when we were in a very poor situation, she didn’t want food to look messy.
“She was the most influential person in my life — as a chef, as a woman, as a human being,” she says. “I feel like I got so much DNA from her. She built my palate.”
When Lee was 5, her parents left their home in the countryside near Daegu City in Korea’s south to look for opportunity in Seoul. One by one, they sent for the children, four, three, two, until there was only Jiyeon — “the most resilient one” — left with her grandmother, Gi Hyun Kim, to look after her.
As a young child Lee sat by her grandmother’s side in the kitchen and plucked the tails from bean sprouts. She learned to soak potatoes in water to loosen the skins, then peel them with a spoon to keep them round and avoid waste. Just because they were poor, didn’t mean their meal should be made with any less care.
Frugality determined everything in the kitchen. After harvesting mu, Korean radishes, Kim would hang the leaves to dry, then braise them with soybean paste into a stew called ugojitang. One night they would eat a soup made from sundried croaker for dinner. The next night, Kim would slowly recook the head and bones into a milky, gelatinous, fishy, salty sauce to pour over rice. “It’s something I’d never recommend anybody to eat,” says Lee. “But for me it’s a very nostalgic memory.”
When Lee was 10, her parents sent for her, and she went to live in a hilly neighborhood in Seoul where her mother shopped in little stores that sold rice, chili powder and grains that were milled on site for her husband’s morning misugaru — a hot beverage like a cup of tea and bowl of cereal rolled into one.
The family apartment “was like the one in (the Korean film) ‘Parasite’ but even smaller,” she says. The Lees shared an outdoor bathroom with three other families.
By the time Lee entered high school, she could make simple dinners of kimchi stew or soybean stew for her family.
Teenage pop star
In high school, Lee caught the attention of a scout for a teen magazine. She had an unusual beauty — mature, she was told, her gaze too unwavering, her eyes too knowing for a teenager. But modeling agencies started calling. Then came a record producer who asked if she liked to sing and discovered her clear, tuneful voice. He signed her to a contract that paid a fraction of what it should have but enough to pay her sister’s college tuition.
Lee released her first album and broke big in 1988, just as the world had turned its attention to South Korea for the Summer Olympics. “I kind of became Cinderella overnight. Everyone wanted me on their shows.” She was on the BBC, NHK, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She traveled repeatedly to Japan, which seemed like a paradise.
It grew old fast. She played nighttime gigs all over Korea, grabbing sleep in the cars shuttling her around, and up early the next day to catch the bus for school. She was miserable.
“I had a big depression back then,” she recalls. “I was too young to handle the gossip that came with being famous. The producer was making so much money off of me. I was working day and night, and I was down to 85 pounds. I felt like I wanted to die when I got up in the morning.”
When she was 18, Lee quit school and quit singing. She wanted to escape and found her way out: a gentle and loving older man who wooed her and whisked her away to Atlanta.
Starting over again
When Lee talks about her first 15 years in Atlanta, she condenses the narrative. She and her husband bought a Buckhead cafeteria — the Blue Chip Cafe in the Atlanta Financial Center — and then, in the early 2000s, they opened Zuma, a sushi bar, in Poncey-Highland. When that business failed, they declared bankruptcy and Lee, finding her husband increasingly controlling and possessive, wanted out of the marriage.
With what little money she could scrounge up, she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and soon began working at Repast restaurant in Midtown. “I realized I was in love with cooking,” she says. “Since I quit singing, I missed the stage so much it felt like I was sick. But cooking fulfilled this, the artistic part of my passion. It was a magical thing.”
At Repast, she captured the attention of Cody Taylor, a Texas-born line cook. She was not looking for a relationship, particularly not with a much younger man. “I wanted to explore my ability. I never had a chance to spread my wings,” she recalls of the time. But soon they were living together, first as friends and then something more.
She took him home to Korea, where he experienced making gochujang, the ubiquitous Korean spice paste. “This reminds me of Texas barbecue rub,” he remarked offhandedly.
Marriage of flavors
That combination of Korean gochujang and brisket was the spark of the idea behind Heirloom Market BBQ, the restaurant they opened in 2010 on a shoestring thanks to a cash gift from Lee’s brother and a kindly landlord who valued their drive over their dismal credit report. The space, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it strip mall hard against the Perimeter, used to be a Mexican restaurant.
At the time, Lee was working at the St. Regis Hotel in Buckhead and dreaming of a transfer to a property in Japan. The gochujang-rubbed brisket was all Cody, whom she loved but wasn’t going to let stand in her way.
But with no money for help, he was perpetually in the weeds and called her at all hours to come over and help. “Make some collard greens!” he pleaded, handing her a case of the leafy vegetable. Lee, who had never cooked collards, thought of the warm, earthy smell of her halmoni cooking radish greens in doenjang, Korea’s version of miso. So she used that, plus rice vinegar, Korean chile flakes and pork fat. Cody loved it. Customers — Black, white, Asian — loved it.
“Every time I ate it, it reminded me of my grandmother,” she says.
Likewise the restaurant’s signature Korean pork sandwich was born of necessity. A case of cabbage, left at the door during a snowstorm, froze solid. Taylor and Lee were still barely scraping through and didn’t have the cash to replace it. So she did what any frugal Korean would do with suboptimal veggies: She made kimchi — kimchi slaw. But what to do with it?
Lee scooped up all the trim from the ribs, diced it small, deep-fried it, then braised it into tender submission with gochujang and sweet chili sauce. She spooned the meat onto a hamburger bun and topped it with the kimchi slaw. It was served as a special one day and a mention in the AJC attracted customers from across the city.
Within a few months, Lee quit her job to work full time at Heirloom Market, where customers lined up every day, snaking through the small strip mall’s parking lot. The few tables they had went quickly and so diners tailgated. Taylor and Lee needed enough money to build a patio. She woke up every morning with her hands swollen from the day before and prayed to God she could make it through another day.
Slowly, surely they stopped living hand to mouth. Over the next few years they installed a meat cooler, a smokehouse, a break room, a patio. Now 21 people work for them.
This was where Lee’s whole life and all her experiences had been leading her. Spreading her wings didn’t mean heading off to Japan for adventure. It meant putting down roots as a strong woman, as a business owner and as a creator with a performative nature who has something to say: It’s in the food.
“We never set out to do fusion or hybrid cooking,” she says. “This is Cody and Jiyeon’s soul food. As a first-generation American and a settler, I put my soul to the soil, to this country. Many settlers brought their soul food to the country to create American food. It’s the same thing, just a different time.”
John Kessler was a food writer and dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1997 to 2015. He now lives in Chicago.
Heirloom Market BBQ. 2243 Akers Mill Road SE, Atlanta; 770-612-2502, heirloommarketbbq.com.
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