Q & A With Kelley Lee, Part 1: Moving to Shanghai, Menu as Nostalgia + The Joy of In-N-Out

Lee Cooking With Family On Her Recent Trip Back To California
Lee Cooking With Family On Her Recent Trip Back To California
Kelley Lee

As 33-year-old Kelley Lee casually rattles off the eight "concepts" that she has opened over the past seven years -- "a diner, a café, a Mexican restaurant, the brewery-gastropub with several locations, an Italian place, a molecular bar" -- we wondered whether the Cerritos native is related to Cedd Moses, or surely at least a protégé of the downtown bar and restaurant mogul.

Nope, she doesn't even know the guy, although she did check out Seven Grand on her last trip to L.A. ("Wow, that place is amazing!"). We caught up with Lee a few weeks ago when she was in town for "my only and annual vacation to visit family." The USC business major, Le Cordon Bleu Paris graduate and Patina alum is usually too busy managing her own growing bar and restaurant empire -- in Shanghai.

Turn the page to for more on Lee, her American restaurant empire in China and what she misses most from home.

A Burrito From Cantina Agave
A Burrito From Cantina Agave

Squid Ink: The obvious question first. Why Shanghai?

Kelley Lee: I guess I got a little tired of being in L.A. I grew up here, went to school here. I was working at Price Waterhouse, and I wanted to leave my job, just wasn't that into it. So I took a few classes in Pasadena [at the Le Cordon Bleu] to decide if I really liked all that, and I did. Then I quit my job and went to culinary school in Paris.

SI: After that you went to China?

KL: I actually came back to L.A. and was working here for a while as a cook [at Patina], and I still just didn't feel there was any energy for me here, anywhere for me to go in restaurants here. That was six, almost seven years ago. I actually wasn't planning to go to Shanghai, but to Dongguan in Southern China. It's sort of the pits of southern China, which I feel like I can say because my family is from China.

SI: Doesn't sound like the dream location.

KL: I had a friend who lived there who said, "Hey come here and open a restaurant! We need a good one." Seemed like a good idea to me. But I came home and told my parents, and they said, "What?" They were freaking out. They said, "Why don't you move to Shanghai instead?" At that time, my Chinese was just OK, not great. My parents convinced me to go to school for six months in Shanghai, learn the language better. That made sense, so I did.

SI: Your family is from Shanghai?

KL: My mom is from Shandong Province and my dad is from Jiangsu. Their families were running from the communists during the revolution and went to Taiwan, then ended up in Richmond, Virginia. They met in graduate school here.

SI: So you wound up in Shanghai for six months to study the language, and suddenly you're the proprietor of multiple restaurants?

KL: [Laughs] People go to China, and they just get sucked in. They really do. The next thing you know, you've been there six years, opened several businesses. It just happens, and very fast in China. You walk by an empty lot, and suddenly it's a building overnight. They can dedicate so much manpower to anything over there. It's pretty amazing.

SI: Your restaurants have a decidedly American vibe. Why go with that?


KL: It was really more just what I wanted to eat. When I first arrived in China, there was really a lack of fresh salad and smoothie-type healthy places. The reason I normally open a restaurant is because I really miss eating a certain food from back home, and the only way that's going to happen in Shanghai, at least a few years ago, was if I opened it.

So my first restaurant concept was a café. The first year I was studying, about a month into it, I met one of my current partners. He offered me the chef job at his restaurant. But I had just gotten to the point after working for other people in L.A. that I couldn't do that anymore. I needed my own place. So we opened this café together, I planned the menu, but it was ours.

SI: And you still have it?

KL: Yes, I still have the cafe. Moving on from there, I missed Mexican food from home, so I opened Cantina Agave. I still have that one, too.

SI: You make it sound so easy, opening restaurants abroad.

KL: Well, I've had some that didn't work out. But most of them have. First you get the expats, of course, and they're the core of your business. Then the locals start to come and it works.

SI: The idea of say, Mexican food in Kansas is very different from what folks in Mexico eat. What is the perception of "American" food in Shanghai?

KL: It's just what you'd expect. When you ask locals what they think of American food, they say it's McDonald's. Burgers in general, too, because McDonald's is so popular there. That's really it. What's the difference between one burger and the next? That's the sort of thing that's been harder to get my customers to understand. Everyone who comes in to the places where I have burgers has been surprised to find that there are all of these different types.

SI: And that's working, they like those American-style burgers?

KL: Yes, but more than that, the thing I've learned is they love a deal. The Chinese love a deal. Like Chinese Americans love a deal. [Laughs.] Good sized portions, not so pricey so they no longer enjoy it.

SI: And you? What do you miss most living in Shanghai?

KL: Honestly? In-N-Out. I'm not kidding. You really miss the small things. And now Shanghai actually has a lot of restaurants, which wasn't the case a few years ago.

Check back for more on Lee's new molecular cocktail lounge, The Alchemist, and the hops side of the budding Shanghai craft beer equation, which Lee is also very much a part of. Her head brewer's name? Michael Jordan, of course.

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