The first thing H Woo Lee learned to cook was Gordon Ramsay’s eggs benedict. The first thing he didn’t get right was the Hollandaise sauce.
“I curdled the egg yolks,” he laughs.
While others may have quit and just gone out for brunch, the California-based chef and USC alum continued. What started as a means to an end during the summer of 2017 quickly became an opportunity for growth. Now, with more than 600,000 followers across Instagram and TikTok, Lee is teaching people how to make fine dining dishes at home.
Lee’s journey started in the summer of 2017 when need dictated he learn how to start cooking for himself. Surrounded by unhealthy or expensive options for food at USC, Lee taught himself to cook the meals he wanted but couldn't have.
“I started getting into recipes that I always craved and assumed you could only have at restaurants,” he says. Eggs benedict was the perfect first start. The brunch staple features a few tricky techniques not often used by home cooks. Poaching eggs while maintaining their round shape and without rupturing the yolk can be intimidating, and the Hollandaise sauce requires constant whisking and temperature control to avoid breaking the emulsion. Still, Lee was undeterred.
After the Hollandaise mishap, Lee continued learning, and by mid-2018 his passion expanded into the outside world. After watching a Vice documentary on the Los Angeles underground supper club Paladar, Lee knew he wanted to start his own.
“I needed an excuse to have people over and food was my way to do it,” he says. Lee created Maru Los Angeles, a supper club based off an old frat house serving “Korean-Italian fine dining.” With a guest list of 10, Lee and his co-chefs would prepare a seven to eight course tasting menu on Mondays and Thursdays.
“I got really into the art of all this stuff,” he says. “It really fascinated me.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee was forced to shut Maru down and work full time for his boss, celebrity luxury wedding planner Kevin Lee. As TikTok grew among U.S. users during the early days of lockdown, Lee experimented with quick-cut cooking videos. It wasn’t until December 13th, Lee’s self-declared “TikTok birthday,” that the self-taught chef really took off.
His first viral video, Wagyu steak with pomme puree and bordelaise sauce, garnered more than 9.9 million views. Since then, Lee’s repertoire has grown to include multiple drinks and desserts.
Drawing from his supper club’s “third-culture cuisine,” Lee’s dishes are infused with Asian ingredients for added umami. From a lobster sashimi bowl, to miso carbonara and kimchi hot chicken sandwiches, Lee’s dishes are uniquely his own.
“I just want to do what inspires me,” he says. “Hopefully it inspires others to do the same.”
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His most watched recipe, Spaghetti with Pomodoro sauce, has amassed 2.8 million views. Lee’s take on the classic Italian tomato gravy includes his staple pantry ingredient Korean, a korean plant-based umami seasoning.
Now part of a community of food content creators on social media, Lee is constantly inspired by his counterparts and other creative outlets. From art to music, Lee pushes himself to create more. After his “Cooking for Myself” series took off, Lee launched a second collection of videos titled “People as food.” Taking popular DJs, celebrities, and musicians, Lee creates dishes based on their personalities.
“I’m trying to bridge the gap between food and electronic music,” he says. “I would love to do a tasting menu at a smaller event for a DJ.”
Lee now works part-time for his boss, investing more time in content creation. Cooking for his more than 600,000 followers is not all that different from his supper club days. While running operations for a seven-course dish for 10 people is logistically different than cooking for just himself, Lee’s found that with TikTok, the preparation time can be just as long.
The pressure to perform well in videos exists, but Lee keeps himself grounded by focusing on the food.
“I think cooking is all about trial and error, but also giving and taking,” he says. “This is how I show self-love."