Throughout International Women’s Month, Chowhound is sharing stories from and about a wealth of women entrepreneurs, businesses, chefs, and cookbook writers who have all found success in the food space. Here, how chef Jiyeon Lee charted a path from K-Pop stardom to Southern BBQ queen.
Note: This piece was written prior to the spread of COVID-19 but you can currently still place orders for pickup from Heirloom Market BBQ if you’re in the neighborhood. (If not, see more ways to support your local restaurants right now.)
There’s a line out the door of a 750-square foot restaurant at the northern edge of Atlanta. People are flocking in for the sweet and spicy BBQ pork sandwiches with kimchi coleslaw, revered by the likes of Adam Richman and Andrew Zimmern. There’s standing room only, but patrons don’t seem to mind it. Heirloom Market BBQ is named one of the best BBQ restaurants in the USA by Food & Wine, Gayot, and Southern Living, among others. The chefs and owners—Jiyeon Lee and Cody Taylor—are nominated for Best Chef Southeast 2020 by the James Beard Foundation.
To get here, Lee (who also goes by Chef JiJi) has had a thrilling, fairytale ride.
K-Pop Stardom: A Dream Dissolved
Lee was born in the suburbs of Daegu, a rural area in South Korea. After the Korean War, her grandparents were separated (to South and North Korea, respectively), while her parents immigrated to the capital of Seoul, for better opportunities. Lee grew up poor, and her only dream as a little girl was to become a celebrity. She didn’t have to wait very long. At 16, a popular Korean teen magazine discovered her and hired her as a model. Soon, she was a teen fashion icon, envy of her classmates, and a financial contributor to her family.
During the ’80s, the South Korean entertainment industry was transitioning from radio to television, and they were looking for fresh faces. Once again, Lee happened to be at the right place at the right time. During a field trip to a recording studio with her school band, Lee got offered a job as a K-Pop singer. She received a year of vocal, music, and dance training, before her first album with 10 songs was released.
“I became Cinderella overnight!” says Lee with excitement. Her album topped the charts and she became a pop star, performing at live shows, clubs, and the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. The entire country came to know who Jiyeon Lee was, but celebrity status brought both recognition and criticism. With increasing popularity, Lee began to fall into depression.
“There was a lot of fake news even before the internet. It was difficult for a teen to handle,” says Lee. Though her next two albums continued to top the charts, depressed and suicidal, Lee secretly married her boyfriend and ran away to Atlanta. “I wanted to escape the tabloids, and not hurt my family,” she remembers of the tumultuous times.
Starting Over in Atlanta
Lee hid from her family, fans, and business associates for six months. As a young immigrant who didn’t speak English and had no skills besides singing, Lee felt lost and eventually returned home. But it was harder in South Korea, where society imposed a great deal of pressure to be perfect and fans judged every action. In 1999, Lee immigrated to Atlanta permanently.
She had learned to appreciate gardening, harvesting, and cooking from her grandmother in South Korea, but never thought about a profession in the culinary arts until she was 36 years old. Feeling she needed a new career that embodied her artistic spirit, yet provided a stable income, Lee enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu Atlanta. She recalls, “I was divorced, bankrupt, and the oldest student in my class. But I was free, and that was the happiest moment of my life!”
Working at several hotels and restaurants, Lee made her way from an intern to an award-winning chef, and also met her partner, Taylor, in the process. Their first venture together, Sobban (now closed), was a modern Korean-American restaurant in Decatur, GA, where Lee could express her creativity in design, flavor, and presentation.
She and Taylor opened Heirloom Market BBQ in 2010 with seed money Lee received from her brother in South Korea. “We had enough to build a bathroom of a restaurant, not to open a fine dine restaurant!” she laughs. They searched for the smallest, cheapest space they could find and converted an abandoned Mexican restaurant into a hole-in-the-wall BBQ concept.
Heirloom Market’s Unique Identity
Now, Heirloom Market BBQ represents the cultural identities of its owners—southern American and laid-back Korean. Taylor’s experience in fast food and catering, married to Lee’s knowledge of Korean food and European style cooking, has led to new, unique flavors that the community has embraced.
Gochujang-marinated spare ribs smoked for six hours, collard greens cooked with Korean miso, and smoked chicken wings with kimchi mayo are some of the highlights on the menu. A staff of 25 works in shifts, butchering the meat, smoking, and blending eight original sauces from scratch.
Still in its original space, Lee has no plans of expanding. “We have a special energy here and everyone loves coming to work every day. We want to enjoy our success, the way it is. It allows me to have a balanced life and spend time with friends, family, and good food,” she claims. With the new Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, around the corner, the space has proved to be a good location after all.
Lee is both surprised and excited by her recent James Beard nomination. She says, “I feel there is a new movement toward female and ethnic chefs and am lucky to be at the forefront of this change. I hope more doors open for young, international chefs.” To inspire and connect budding chefs and artists, Lee is planning to open a creative shared studio in Atlanta in fall 2020, where she will host events and pop up dinners.
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Header image courtesy of Christophe Le Metayer