Kelley Lee is the young, talented chef and mastermind behind some of Shanghai’s most famous and well-loved eateries (The Alchemist, Boxing Cat Brewery, Cantina Agave). Not long ago, she expanded Mexican favorite Cantina Agave to Pudong and had a slew of new venues open up at the Sinan Mansions complex. A remarkably tenacious business woman, Shanghaiist gets her to open up on what constitutes a good meal, how a guy should impress her over dinner, and whether she has any more plans for world, excuse us, Shanghai domination.
You’ve recently expanded Cantina to Jinqiao and have a few new places at the Sinan Mansions complex. How do you split up your time between all your different restaurants?
I just try to spend more time in the restaurants that need me more. Most of the time, that ends up being restaurants we just open and we’re still working the kinks out of. The bulk of the time goes to them (now that happens to be Cantina Pudong, BCB Sinan, Alchemist) and the rest of the babies just get visited a few times a week.
How do you define a good meal?
A good meal can be so many things. Foodwise, I think a good meal has to involve some care and thought put into the ingredients and the dish. Most of the time, good is also relative to something that creates value. Meaning, a meal could be good, but if it breaks the bank, you probably will judge it more harshly. Outside of that, for me, good meals always involve, good friends, laughter, and booze. 🙂
What would you say is your trademark stamp in all your venues?
Gosh, I don’t know that there is one. I guess we try above all to create something that’s unique, fun and gives the customers value. Does that count as a trademark stamp? I feel like an infomercial saying that.
You’ve said in other interviews that you prefer the chef role over being business manager. How often are you able to get in the kitchen?
I’m able to get back more often these days. Usually in set up for any new restaurant, I’m in the kitchen for the first couple of months almost daily, outside of that, I have a lot of fun, playing around in the Alchemist kitchen. We’re working on new brunch and dinner menus now so that always gives me the opportunity to get more involved with the food side of things.
What is the main difference you see in the restaurant scene between when you opened your first place and now? What direction is Shanghai’s food scene heading towards?
The food scene has changed so much since I started. When I first came to China I was dying for places to go, I missed the food back home so much. Ingredients were terrible, imported goods were hard to come by, there were only a few places that you could get food that felt like back home. Now, I think there has been so much expansion in the restaurant industry, Shanghai’s restaurant scene is definitely improving. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things that I still miss and plenty of improvements that could be made (please God, let In-N-Out Burger come to China) but in general, I think there are many gaps that have been filled in the past few years.
I hope to see Shanghai’s food scene head towards more organic, sustainable produce and meats. I really hope that general consumers realize that quality often comes with higher prices, especially in a market like Shanghai where we need to import so much of the food that makes your meals taste authentic. I was shocked when I recently went back home to Los Angeles, I realized that everything was SO expensive, much more than what I remembered. I had to check myself and remind myself that the prices I REMEMBERED were from 5-6 years ago and could not compare to what we pay today. When more people are more willing to pay a little more for something that’s superior, we’ll start seeing better changes in the market.
What would a guy have to do to or how has a guy impressed you on a dinner date?
A guy would have to be a gentleman, take me to a nice restaurant or a hole in the wall, it doesn’t really matter as long as the food and conversation are good. Above all, he should pay. I’m an old fashioned kind of girl. If I insist on paying, it’s because I never want to have to see you again. 🙂
If you were only allowed to eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I don’t think I can answer this question. This is an EVIL question!!!
We know that being the only girl in a boys club can be tough in many aspects but what are the perks of being female in a testosterone-driven environment?
Well, when you tire of “being one of the boys” and trying to tough it out because you have something to prove, you’ll actually find that being one of the only females in this kind of environment is pretty good. You can often get what you want with feminine charms and since chefs are generally so “testosterone-driven” everyone is willing to help a damsel in distress. 🙂
Do you have any other projects that you can spill the beans on?
No new projects this year….gotta concentrate on making what we have fantastic!