Celebrity Chef Kevin Lee reflects on reimagining Birdies, hospitality, and life balance, interview

Chef Kevin Lee on Tournament of  Champions Season 5
Chef Kevin Lee on Tournament of Champions Season 5 / Food Network

While many Food Network fans are taking notice of celebrity Chef Kevin Lee on Tournament of Champions Season 5, the Oklahoma based chef has had a long tenure in the hospitality industry. After spending years running restaurants for others, his Oklahoma City restaurant, Birdies, has been reimagined in a way that celebrates who he wants to be as a chef. During a recent conversation with the chef, his definition of culinary success is rooted in finding a sense of life balance.

Although guests might be enthralled with the dining delights presented by creative chefs, the reality is that the chef life may not be as glamorous as it seems. While most chefs are driven to offer the best hospitality to every guest that sits at their table, that lifestyle does come with a sacrifice. As others have said before, chefs help guests celebrate memories, but it can come at the cost of missing their own celebratory moment.

For Chef Kevin, his personal experiences guide how he approaches Birdies, a modern Korean steakhouse. After spending over 20 years in the hospitality industry, he has an understanding what the restaurant and chef life is. Specifically, he said “I know how important balance is. I want my team to stay focused and deliver their best performance.” By focusing on dinner service and operating hours, Chef Kevin believes that his concept has come together to be effective and successful.

After spending many years running fine dining restaurants and corporate kitchens, Chef Lee was ready for a change. While that initial career path offered monetary stability for his family, he always knew that there was more that he wanted to accomplish.

Even though Birdies received acclaim in its first version as a Korean fried chicken restaurant, he mentioned that it needed to evolve. While it was easier to operate and was a bit more family friendly, he said “I was trying to be someone that was not me. It was hard for me to figure out.”

When the opportunity to be part of Tournament of Champions Season 5 came around, it was the opportunity to rethink what Birdies could be. With the help of a supportive landlord and local community, he was able to reimagine the space into what it is today, a modern Korean steakhouse.

Going into additional debt to bring that concept to life might have been scary, but it was a gamble that he was willing to take. Chef Kevin might have said that “it was all or nothing, it was this thing has to work scenario, but I did not have a choice. I am really excited to go to work every day and I am having a good time again.”

Given its location in Oklahoma, Chef Kevin appreciates that his steakhouse needed to stand out in a creative way yet still have enough familiarity that people crave. As he explained, the perfectly seasoned and seared steak comes with unique sauces. Whether the guest drizzles a little sauce over the top or prefers to wrap that tender bite in lettuce, it is a way to see the traditional ingredients in a new light.

In addition, the other components on his menu celebrate Korean flavors and traditional dishes. That steak might be the sizzling star on the table, but it is even more enjoyable with its supporting cast of food options. From a traditional Korean sweet potato dish to take on a burrata, there are plenty of ways to explore all the food options.

Although those dishes might not be the typical steakhouse fare, Chef Kevin believes that Korean food and culture is thriving and people want to try all those flavors. Specifically, he believes that the ingredients and flavor profiles are “not foreign to people anymore.” From kimchi to gochujang, those foods are part of the collective flavor conversation.

Birdies by Chef Kevin Lee
Birdies, a modern Korean steakhouse / Birdies

Chef Kevin believes, “I've always felt like Korean cuisine was very American friendly when it comes to flavors.” That approachability makes the food exciting without going too far out of people’s comfort zones.

While Birdies has found its audience in Oklahoma City, the notoriety that Food Network and other culinary competitions bring can be helpful for any chef who is looking to sustain a successful business. But, it can be both a benefit and a detriment.

As the chef explained, “getting your name out there is huge, and it is great for the business. But, sometimes it is harder because people see you on TV and they have higher expectations. When your name is on that restaurant, you have to work five times harder to live up to the expectation.”

Luckily, for anyone who has dined at Birdies, they appreciate that Chef Kevin Lee meets and exceeds those high expectations.

Birdies by Chef Kevin Lee, a modern Korean steakhouse is located in Edmond, Oklahoma. Reservations can be made online.