Foodies first caught a glimpse of chef Debbie Lee back in 2009 when she appeared on season five of “The Next Food Network Star.” Not only did she win accolades with her “Seoulful” Korean-American comfort food creations, but she warmed hearts with her fun and peppy personality.
I first met Debbie around that same time when I featured her on one of my TV segments. Ever since, we’ve stayed in touch and I’ve enjoyed watching her grow both professionally and personally. But I really had no idea how much was going on and how serious her personal health journey has been. (Watch the below interview where she talks about her struggle with bulimia and her advice to those suffering from eating disorders.)
I caught up with Debbie who shares about life as a Food Network star, how she changed her relationship with food to lose weight and gain health (and how to help you do the same), and the importance of her Korean identity in an industry that has slowly evolved over time.
She also shares an easy recipe at the bottom of this story, so don’t miss it!
Congratulations on your recent return to the Food Network. Give us the scoop on “Comeback Kitchen.”
Thanks so much, Mar! Aside from some crazy food challenges, you definitely get to see how all of the contestants (including yours truly) have evolved since viewers have last seen us. Some of our culinary point of view has definitely shifted, along with career changes and, of course, life.
You’ve run your own restaurants and food truck, wrote a cookbook and starred on Food Network. Then you took some time off. On January, 1, 2013 you made a promise to yourself to live a healthier lifestyle. What spurred this decision?
At the end of 2012, I had shut down my brick-and-mortar restaurant Ahn-Joo as we decided not to renew the lease. I had also been on an insane tour for my cookbook for a year straight while running a restaurant, and just trying to keep up with the Joneses. I was spiraling out of physical control and that’s when I went to see my doctor for my annual check-up.
She told me that I needed to wake up and take care of me or there would be no food career, not to mention I have a great fear of needles. I was at my highest weight ever, just shy of 215 pounds and I had to face the music and my body. So I guess you could say it was time.
You are a proud Korean American and have always been proud to give folks a taste of “Seoulful” cooking. How has your personal health journey affected how and what you cook for people now?
Make no mistake, the Korean has not left the building, lol! However, I definitely pull from a variety of global flavors as I love giving clients variety so they do not get bored. Also, I think back in the day I was so stuck on my culinary point of view, that I forgot to show people that I can cook things other than Korean food or American soul food. I still make fried chicken (the healthy way) and will sneak in a bite of kimchee every now and then. It’s all about balance.
You launched Mind Body Fork, a meal delivery service focused on sustainable, healthy ingredients. Why did you choose to do this instead of running another restaurant?
Mind Body Fork was launched on January 2015. I still remember the day when I posted my “before and after” photo on Facebook and announced to everyone what I was opening. As a chef I wanted to live in the present and be able to cook what I can actually eat myself.
As I continued to lose weight in 2013, I would selfishly invite friends over for dinner and cook them what I considered a healthy, balanced meal. This meant no sugar or gluten. My friends were so impressed they offered to cancel their subscription with their current meal service if I opened my own place.
It got me thinking, and after a few years of research and development, I realized what I do is a niche for true foodies and there is definitely a market out there. Most important, if I could help change one person in how they live to eat, I made a difference and my job was done.
Your meal delivery service doesn’t focus on calories. Why is that important?
Prior to launching Mind Body Fork, I did my own research on authorities on nutrition and came across a book called “Food Rules” by Dr. Catherine Shanahan. It was truly common sense about how to properly eat, and she even said go and eat that duck or chicken skin! So, of course I was sold.
She also happened to be the director of nutrition of the LA Lakers and I thought this concept is real food–I could eat this way daily. Instead of counting calories (although I am not telling you to inhale two pounds of grass fed steak), we focus on metrics, which is the key to losing weight. You can eat 1200 calories a day but if the majority of it is sugar and bad processed carbs, what’s the point? So we based the premise of our meals around Dr. Shanahan’s food philosophy.
A few months after opening Mind Body Fork, Dr. Cate and I were on a panel at a health conference and I told her MBF’s food model was inspired by her. We instantly became friends and later that year, she became our medical advisor and partner. I’m so grateful and blessed in where this health journey has taken me.
There was a time when you were about 30 pounds heavier and your favorite food were bacon, fried chicken and kimchee. Now that you have chosen a healthier lifestyle, does that list of favorite foods still hold true? (Although I know kimchee is good for our health with all those probiotics!)
I would be lying if I told you no! However, it’s the kind of bacon and fried chicken you consume. Meaning, I learned a new way to cure and smoke our own bacon so that it is truly non-GMO, sustainable and healthy. Of course, it’s about portion size and I learned I don’t need to put bacon on everything (although I still dream). And yes, kimchee is great for you. It is a probiotic and being a fermented food, it has multiple health properties. Not to mention, I think it is absolutely delicious!
Let’s go beyond food for a minute. I didn’t grow up seeing Latinas represented in media. And when I did see them, they were the stereotypically sexy and voluptuous Latinas. In other words, the opposite of me! As a Korean girl did you find it particularly difficult because of cultural stereotypes of the “skinny Asian” as well as the invisibility of your culture in mass media?
It’s funny you ask that as I always preface to clients that I am not “Lucy Liu thin.” I definitely struggled in my younger years as I could not understand why I was not this skinny 105-pound little Asian, and had to have the curves and a whole lot of them. I thought that was normal, and always felt like the odd girl out.
In my teens I remember going to Korean camp and looking around at all my friends that could wear all the fabulous clothes. Of course, I had my own thing as I could not fit into most jeans and such. When it came to take the group photos, I simply dreaded it as I did not look like I was part of the crew. Luckily I had amazing friends there (and still do) whom accepted me no matter what I was wearing.
In terms of being invisible as a Korean-American chef, I remember prior to my Food Network days, I had a catering company and would always put as an appetizer option my version of bulgogi ssam. I remember to this day a certain event planner would say, ‘I think the word Korean will put off people to eat them. Can we just call them Asian lettuce wraps?’ Wow, I thought, how racist and we are living in the 2k era. But, of course, I needed to work and thus swallowed my pride and just went with it.
It wasn’t until I got cast for “Food Network Star” in 2009 that I realized I can be proud of who I am and that people do want to hear about Korean food and learn how to make it. I remember finishing filming and Roy Choi had just launched the Kogi truck. I guess you could say it was the year of the Korean and I was one of the fortunate ones in the culinary world to pave the way.
It was the year I launched my cookbook “Seoultown Kitchen” that I finally felt truly me. In fact, when my book agent called to let me know that my cookbook got nominated for IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals), I was over the moon and filled with all sorts of emotion as the book was not so much about putting recipes out there, as it was telling my story about who I am.
If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you would be doing?
Most likely an attorney or perhaps a lobbyist on Capitol Hill.
What do you think we need to re-learn about our relationship to food? What are we getting wrong and how can we make it right?
The biggest lesson I have learned and continue to learn is that there is no right way to eat. Each of our bodies are different and react to certain foods. What works for you may not work for me, and that’s OK.
Listen to your body and don’t just jump on a meal program because everyone is doing it. Whatever you choose has to work for you and become your food lifestyle 90% of the time. Whether that is plant based, low carb or even whole 30, the philosophy has to be compatible with your culinary likes/dislikes and most important, your body.
Most of all, don’t get so wrapped up in it. Enjoy food! We are here on this Earth for only so long. I don’t know about anyone else, but I want to live knowing I am enjoying and celebrating all the incredible flavors life brings.
Have a super easy recipe that we can make at home? We’d love for you to share it!
I do! I am a snacker and love to nibble, so here is a recipe for a roasted veggie hummus. Just use whatever vegetables you have leftover from dinner the night before.
Roasted Vegetable Hummus
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Servings: Approx 8
1 cup roasted vegetables from dinner leftovers
1/4 cup organic tahini
2 tsp minced organic garlic clove
2 Tbs water
Juice of half an organic Meyer lemon
1/2 cup organic extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
- Combine all ingredients except oil in food processor and blend
- Drizzle in olive oil and continue to blend until smooth and the consistency of hummus
- Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, transfer to bowl/container and enjoy with your favorite cracker or crudités
- Keeps in refrigerator for up to one week
Learn more about Debbie Lee’s life-changing Mind Body Fork meal delivery service.