For the month of September, exclusive for the Asheville Citizen Times, I will be photographing and talking with Asian-American immigrants living in Asheville. Chesky spent nearly two years living as a foreigner in Busan, South Korea before returning to his hometown.
Jimmy Lee is the lead line cook at Buxton Hall Barbecue
Nathan Chesky: First of all what is your name? I am guessing it wasn’t always Jimmy.
Jimmy Lee: JinHyuk, that’s my Korean name, well that’s my legal name. Jimmy is a name that I picked, apparently when I was four. I don’t remember it, but I named myself after Jimmy Carter. He was in Korea doing Habitat for Humanity work, and he was on TV, and I had to pick a name for English class. I went up through school ‘til seventh grade in Seoul, where every school teaches English, and that was my name.
Chesky: So, this was just your regular Korean public school, it wasn’t a Hagwon or International school?
Lee: Yeah, I went to public school. Well, I also grew up near Gangnam, in Seoul. Where, you know, everyone is crazy about education and going to Hagwon all the time in addition to school. I went to English school after school. On top of that, my dad was running an international business and he studied English in college. So, I kind of grew up with English all around me. When I moved here, I was conversational. There was a time after I moved here and a plumber came to our house, and he said, “What’s up?” I didn’t know what that meant, but I could talk with him about what was going on, but I didn’t know phrases like that.
Chesky: So, after Seoul, what were the moves that lead you to WNC?
Lee: I was born in Seoul and I lived in Seoul until I was in seventh grade. And then, for a year, my family actually moved out of Seoul and moved to Chungnam. After a year there, we moved here.
Chesky: What was it like moving from Seoul to Chungnam?
Lee: It’s very different. It’s a city, but it’s not a huge city. It is probably the size of maybe Greenville. Maybe not even Greenville, it’s a small city. I moved there because my parents opened up a new restaurant and my dad had cancer. Running a restaurant in Seoul wasn’t good for him.
Chesky: So, is that what eventually brought you here?
Lee: Yeah, mostly because of my dad’s health. Also the restaurant they were running in Chungnam wasn’t doing so well because we had spent all our lives in Seoul and we moved to somewhere completely new and didn’t understand the regional culture. We couldn’t adapt to it. The little nuances in food. The restaurant in Seoul was doing really well. We were doing table side barbecue thing, but in Chungnam people wanted seafood, because it’s a coastal town. We were doing food from Seoul, and a lot of Koreans outside of Seoul will say, “You’re not a local,” or, “You’re not cooking our food.”
Chesky: So, that’s why you left, but why Western North Carolina?
Lee: My dad has a cousin here (in WNC) who runs a nursing home. They have lived here for 20-30 years, and they run a nursing home mostly for Koreans. The nurses will also cook all their food. So, my mom worked there when we first moved here, and I actually lived in that nursing home for four years throughout high school.
Chesky: Did you move straight from Korea to a nursing home in America?
Lee: I first moved here, and the first house I lived in was up in Mount Pisgah in the middle of the woods. From Seoul to Mount Pisgah. I specifically remember one night, I couldn’t fall asleep and I didn’t know why until three o’clock in the morning. I realized it was the sound of the bugs. At night, my brain could cancel out cars, planes, people yelling, but bug sounds, my brain couldn’t cancel out yet, so I couldn’t fall asleep. There was no quiet time in Seoul.
Chesky: How long were you out there?
Lee: So, we moved into that house and maybe after two months we moved into the nursing home, which was the start of my ninth grade, and I lived there until I graduated high school. It’s in Fletcher, well Alexander, actually.
Chesky: You went to Asheville High? I doubt they were sending buses out that far.
Lee: No, No, No. I was driving 45 minutes to Asheville High every day. It was a North Buncombe district, but we were already going to church, a Korean church downtown, and a family there told us that their son who was my age was already going to Asheville High. They also lived in the North Buncombe district. So, I guess my family just kind of followed that and put me in Asheville High. Which was a great choice, because I dearly love that school. It’s the most diverse school in Western North Carolina. I guess I felt better there because I wasn’t the only different kid. I also already had a friend.
Chesky: What’s next for you as you approach your transition out of high school?
Lee: I got into art history when I was a junior in high school. I took an AP art history class and fell in love with it. Before that, I had never considered any career in the field of art. I wasn’t told to be anything. My parents weren’t really like that. But there was also that expectation from them of, “We got to make a good person out of you,” for the sake of, “We moved here for your education, you have got to do something great.” So, I was always thinking doctor, lawyer, all the cliché jobs. Success defined in the terms of money. At the same time, I was getting really into art. That together put in where I wanted to be an architect. I ended up at App State. They had construction science or building science programs. I really liked it, though I was paying for school out of pocket. I had worked through high school. At the same time, my parents were going through a hard time financially. So, I left school after three semesters, and I sold cars, actually for a year at Paramount Kia. I was thinking it’s a Korean company, and I walked in there pretty cocky thinking I could sell cars with no real sales experience. I was 20 years old, and for some reason they gave me a job. That was at a time where we were deeply into the recession. So, some of my coworkers and friends in the industry selling cars were architects. Architects selling cars. They didn’t have any projects. So, I started second guessing my career choice. My parents had lost their jobs and were trying to think of a business to form. I had always grown up with them running a restaurant. I grew up doing homework in the kitchen. I had never thought I would work in a kitchen as a career, but I always enjoyed cooking. I started cooking for my parents and I realized, “Hey this is fun!”
Chesky: So, how did El Kimchi food truck come about?
Lee: That was when Roy Choi was becoming a big deal with the Korean/Mexican food truck out in LA. We didn’t have a lot of money to start something new, so this idea was really appealing to us. My mom has owned two restaurants before and has so much talent. I wanted to learn and see how to do that for a living. And, for some reason, my parents let me make the menu. I had just turned 21. They didn’t know anything about Mexican food. We could see that it had worked in LA, and we hadn’t seen anything on the East Coast.
We began hearing news stories about food trucks possibly being allowed downtown. It was great timing. So, we got into the community of food trucks, which was smaller at the time, and offered to help in any ways they needed. It all started at 51 Coxe Ave. at “The Lot.”
Chesky: Do you attribute Asheville’s growth, especially the microbrewery industry, to be a help to the rise of food trucks?
Lee: It definitely helps to have all these microbreweries with all the outdoor seating areas. We really only go to one brewery now, The Wedge. We have been there about four years now, and it seems like they are doing more business. I’d love to believe that it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
Chesky: So, what was life like after getting the truck off the ground with your family?
Lee: So, we had started the food truck, and by that time I was committed to cooking for a career. I knew, somewhere in my heart, that my parents just wanted me to have a degree. So, after a year, we worked very hard and had a decent customer base, I went back to school. So, I went back and changed my major to marketing and decided it would be useful when I ever ran my own restaurant. I went back to school, and for the next two years I was in class and then Thursday night I would drive home to work for El Kimchi through Sunday, and then head back to school. I did that until I graduated. One summer I came home and worked on the truck and also worked at Ben’s Tune-Up. I met Elliot Moss through from friends. I walked in, and he knew I was a part of the food truck, so I said, “Hey Elliot, my name is Jimmy.” Elliot responded immediately with, “Yeah I know who you are, when do you want to start?” It was my very first job working in a kitchen that wasn’t my family’s, so I wasn’t a great cook at the time. That’s when I really started to get a grasp to understand what it is to work in a kitchen.
Chesky: So, after college and coming home to work where did you end up?
Lee: After I graduated college, I came back to Asheville and helped with El Kimchi for about a year. I knew I wanted to do more than the food truck. I wanted to cook somewhere else, learn more from the cooks here, more about the food here. I wasn’t really familiar with using all the food that was local to here, to North Carolina. So, knowing Elliot was going to open a barbecue place, and that he uses a lot of local ingredients, it seemed like the right place for me to go. So, I applied and Elliot gave me the job. I started from the very bottom of the pool of line cooks, and it has been about a year now, and I worked my way up to be lead line cook. I started maybe a week or two before Buxton opened.
Chesky: Did you wish to work in barbecue specifically, being in North Carolina?
Lee: So, trying to learn the food that is of WNC or of North Carolina in general is another reason why Buxton Hall was appealing to me. I mean, what is more Carolina than barbecue, right? I knew he was going to do all wood, whole hog barbecue, and there is something that draws people to it, when you are cooking with wood. Maybe it’s like a primal thing that we all still have inside of us. I mean Koreans cook with charcoal a lot, and every culture has that background. Before gas, we were all using charcoal or wood. That was very appealing to me, as well. Learning barbecue that was very true to Carolina, and the opportunity to learn other aspects of cooking. I’ve really only been cooking for about five years professionally.
Chesky: The famous barbecue in Korea is table side grills where customers can watch their meat being prepared, or even cook it themselves. Buxton has an open kitchen as well, where customers can see what is happening beyond the plating.
Lee: I don’t know exactly what Elliot’s thought behind having an open kitchen was. I mean, many cooks have many reasons behind that. It elevates the cooks. It almost becomes a showcase at certain restaurants. You have to keep it, and yourself, looking pristine and clean. Open kitchen is a great thing. I love being able to see the customers enjoy the food. The ability for customers to stop by the kitchen and thank us on the way out, that’s the best part. It’s the best part.