Deciding on a place to conduct an interview with a chef can be tricky. Luckily, our secret weapon is a hit, as Austin Lee circles OC Mart Mix thrice to locate Portola Coffee Lab in time to beat the Paul Mitchell students on break. With his Asian upbringing (plus Italian and Brazilian childhood influences), Lee was an ideal match for Diamond Jamboree's Itriya Cafe. Walking the line between classic and fusion may raise eyebrows, but Lee's ambition and skill make us believers in flatbreads topped with Korean barbecue and noodles blanketed in a sauce made from New England clam chowder.
Your earliest food memory:
I was raised on my grandmother's cooking. I remember being sick quite often as a child, and it was my grandmother who fed me Korean rice porridge and her homemade radish kimchee. I still distinctly remember how good her kimchee was.
Favorite meal growing up:
My grandmother's cooking! She used to make side dishes, or banchan, for our friends in the neighborhood. She was well-respected for her culinary talents.
Your best recent food find:
It would have to be the lobster cavatelli at the Strand House in Manhattan Beach. Beautifully simple dish, yet the flavors come together in such smoothness that it leaves you begging for more and licking the plate clean.
Most undervalued ingredient:.
Alcohol. I learned to cook from a fine alcoholic chef. [Editor's Note: He meant this in the most positive way, always incorporating wine and alcohol into the food.] Sometimes a dash of the right liquor or wine can really deepen and enhance flavors. Take a swig, then pour some in! For example, we'd take a classic chocolate-chip-cookie recipe, and pour half a bottle of Jack Daniels in it. The alcohol would bake off, but you'd still get the flavor. It would also bring out the chocolate.
When did you join Itriya?
I started in the beginning of November of 2011. I had just left the SLS Hotel and started working at Itriya the day after.
What have you changed since you got here?
Where do I begin? I hope to say the place is a night-and-day difference from before I came here until now. I replaced the whole kitchen staff with cooks who were hungry and passionate to learn. It took a while to find the right people and instill in them the type of discipline and standards taught to me by the amazing chefs I worked with.
Recipes are constantly being reviewed and updated. How many people can say they sous vide skirt steaks and chicken? I'm all about flavor. I'm not about the cheap grated Parmesan; I love nice, quality Parmesan wheels, freshly grated or microplaned. I'm infusing smoked mozzarella and Parmesan rinds in my Bolognese sauce.
I'm taking everything I learned up to now, and little by little, I'm reflecting that in the menu. It's a constant struggle to improve and not be content with mediocrity. I will constantly read, study, improve and experiment to improve myself, my food and the restaurant.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
I've been here too little time to even have the courage to answer that. I work 15-hour days, seven days a week. Please tell me what's open past 11 p.m. that's not a fast-food chain. [We forwarded him our Top 10 list of late-night eats, already.]
What fast food do you admit to eating?
I love my In-N-Out, but I have to sheepishly admit, you will once in a while catch me guiltily going through the drive-thru at a Yoshinoya. There's something about the beef bowl and some Sriracha that I find myself craving occasionally.
What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
Maker's Mark and Mexican Coke. Wait, is that even a beverage? If you see me drinking Coke at work or anywhere else, now you know what I'm drinking. I hope my boss doesn't read this.
Where do you grocery shop (for yourself, not the café)?
I love going out to Santa Monica farmers' market on Wednesdays. You see so many famous chefs, aspiring cooks and just a lot of people who share the same passion for good food and fresh products. Cherry tomatoes never tasted sweeter, strawberries are like candy, and where else do you find Romanescos and other distinct seasonal produce?
When do you start and end a typical day?
I am at the kitchen by 9 with my morning team, blasting music and prepping for the day. It's a full crank for lunch, and in my downtime, I usually try to catch up on food trends, blogs and magazines. Then I work with my night crew for the happy-hour-and-dinner shift, usually ending at 10 or 11. Then, I'm off to the gym for a couple of hours. It's vicious, but I enjoy what I do and it's part of the industry.
One food you can't live without:
Tacos and burritos. It's an LA thing. I've grown so partial to Mexican cuisine that I can't go a couple of days without my taco fix. You name it: al pastor, buche, tripa, huareches and everything else on the menu. I'm dedicated to the point I drive to LA after work to grab a couple of tacos and a burrito.
Where was your most recent meal?
La Vista Hermosa Taqueria in downtown LA. The chef is awesome. With authentic Mexican recipes and a fine-dining experience working alongside chefs from Spago and Ortolan, this guy is good. Al pastor with handmade tortillas, al pastor that clean in flavor–not too sweet or greasy–are the best in town I've found so far. I'm sure many will defend their favorite taco joints to be the best, but this is my spot.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Recipes are great and all, but it's more important to have fun. Some of the best dishes in history are created from pure mistakes or just fooling around in the kitchen.
How's your happy hour? What can I get?
Our happy hour includes any two beers for $5 and a glass of any wine for $3. Who cares about anything else? That in itself should be enticing enough. We also serve our à la carte menu and our flatbreads for half-price. Try the buttermilk-marinated calamari with pickled onions and five-herb tartar sauce or our popular marinated Korean rib-eye flatbread.
What do you think of people who take photographs of their food?
I'm flattered but anxious at the same time. Knowing that it's a trend to take pictures and upload them to Yelp or Instagram puts that stress of wanting to make sure each plate is immaculate, no matter what. But it's not too easy to make a plate of pasta photogenic.
Oh, that's a hard one. I've worked under so many awesome people, to pick one would kill me — literally, it could get me killed. To list off those who have greatly influenced me and taught me so much: chef David Slatkins, chef Daniel Elkins, chef Alex Garcia, chef Neal Frasier, pastry chef Romain Drocourt and many more. They all taught me different values, cuisines, techniques and ideas. I'm eternally grateful to them. If I didn't put your name, please don't kill me.
So the concept of Itriya . . . It's different.
Yes, it is. Doesn't it make things a lot more interesting when you have an innovative concept, when you're not defined by just a single type of cuisine, but rather a fusion of different ethnicities. Pasta is not just Italian anymore, but translated by different ethnicities. And this is what I want to try to replicate. Itriya is about Italian Asian fusion, serving spaghetti from classic Italian sauces to Japanese, Korean, you name it! We plan to add more in the near future.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
I've had many things, but raw beef liver with sea salt and sesame oil was something I tried and liked as a kid. Many parents thought I was weird to ask for raw liver from time to time.
Sweet or savory?
Savory! I'm not too keen on sweets. Having had a damn-good French pastry chef as a roommate puts a lot of desserts out there to shame.
Favorite places to eat (besides your own):
So many places, but I love Robata Jinya, Park's Korean BBQ, Yen Sushi and Sake Bar, BLD, Red Medicine . . . and the list goes on.
I know you mentioned a pop-up . . .
Yes, it's my first pop-up; I will be doing it with my favorite sous chef. We are looking to do it sometime in June or early July. I want to use this opportunity to re-define if Itriya was to do fine dining, this is what we are capable of. I'm curious to see the reaction of the customers and see how far my experiences in different restaurants can take me.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
A latte, five-hour energy drink and some soft poached eggs — a breakfast of the champions.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
It wasn't so weird, but it did irk me. I was the sous chef at Gonpachi of Beverly Hills at the time, and someone ordered an o-toro sashimi. The customer requested we torch the living hell out of it. For me, that was like asking for a well-done Kobe steak. It's fine, but . . . it does bring a small tear to my eye.