Charleston Magazine: You live in Seattle, so how did you end up opening a restaurant in Charleston?
Lily Lei: I met Karalee [Nielsen Fallert, Lee Lee’s other co-owner] when she was in college working at my restaurant China Lily in Utah. We stayed in touch through the years, and when she decided to open a Chinese restaurant in Charleston she called me.
CM: You were born in Taiwan. What brought you to North America?
LL: I moved to Montreal from Taiwan when I was 18 years old after my husband proposed.
One hot mama Drop by Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen at 218 President St. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (843) 822-5337, leeleeshotkitchen.com. CM: That must have been a hard adjustment. Did you learn French?
LL: Yes, I had to learn French and English. My English at the time was very basic. I knew simple sentences like, “The sky is blue.” I had to learn a lot.
CM: How did you get your start cooking?
LL: A few years after moving to Montreal, my family moved to Calgary, where my father opened the Chinese restaurant Leo Fu's, and the family worked with him. My father loved to eat and entertain. Whenever he had extra money, we’d all go out to try new restaurants. The recipes I use today at Lee Lee’s are my father’s.
CM: Your father passed away a few years ago. What’s it like to continue to cook his recipes?
LL: Every time I open a restaurant, it makes me feel closer to my father. And I often dream of him. I recently had a dream about him, and he didn’t look worried, he looked happy. I know he’s looking down and thinking we’re doing all right here.
CM: Charleston is 3,000 miles from Seattle. How does it work with you
flying in for a week each month to run the restaurant?
LL: My husband is very supportive, and there’s no business more fun than the restaurant business. You work so hard that every bone in your body hurts, but the feeling you get when you make people happy with your food, that’s what I love. And with Karalee, who has been so successful with so many restaurants, I knew we could make it work.
CM: What have you been excited about recently at Lee Lee’s?
LL: We just added a 25-seat space for events in the back of the restaurant. It’s a fun room, especially for a big group.
One hot mama
Drop by Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen at 218 President St. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (843) 822-5337, leeleeshotkitchen.com.