Raised in the San Gabriel Valley, Angie Lee spent many childhood weekends at the local swap meet, where her parents ran a booth selling tools and other household goods. She and her two younger brothers happily played around customers and in the aisles while snacking on elote, tacos and Mexican candies from neighboring vendors. Back at home, she tried her hand in the kitchen at a young age, guided by cookbooks for kids. But when her parents divorced some years later, she took on nearly all of the kitchen duties.
“I was 13, and my mom was now a single parent at work all day,” Lee says. “My brothers really depended on me.”
She took her new responsibility in stride, trying new dishes and even fielding her siblings’ “reviews.” One day, a brother insulted her fettuccine alfredo, saying the version at Sizzler was better. Her sense of kitchen competition flamed. There was no way she could let a chain buffet restaurant trump her. She started to spice things up, literally, experimenting with bolder flavors and spices.
When Lee left home, it was to study economics at University of California, San Diego. She didn’t yet see herself as a chef, despite the fact that she quickly became everyone’s favorite cook in college. Once she had her bachelor’s degree in hand, she entered the finance world and spent five rather unhappy years there until a family member’s event pulled her out of her blues. She was cooking for her aunt, who was hosting a dinner party, and the guests were so enamored with her food that they wondered why in the world she wasn’t cooking for a living.
It was the quiet push she needed. With a little help from that same aunt, Lee moved to La Crescenta and started culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. A post-program externship brought her to three-Michelin-star Martin Berasategui Restaurant in Lasarte-Oria, Spain, and what followed upon Lee’s return to L.A. makes for a formidable resume of hotel restaurant experience: a stint at The Beverly Wilshire, five years as sous chef at The London West Hollywood, a short stretch at Santa Monica Proper (foiled by the pandemic) and the role of executive chef at Hotel June’s beloved Caravan Swim Club in Westchester.
The menu at Caravan Swim Club was crafted with a specific inspirational concept by restaurateur Steve Livigni: the dreamy coastal road trip between San Diego and Ensenada. No menu idea could have excited Lee more. “To this day, I am in love with Mexican food,” she says. “I had never met Steve before, so when he told me the concept, I was so excited and I had so many ideas.”
She perfected battered shrimp tacos for the restaurant and tested out nearly 20 versions of hot salsas before choosing a few for a salsa trio. Ceviche, sea bass with a Fresno chili slaw and chicken pozole are other offerings at the restaurant. For Lee, designing the menu was a homecoming of sorts. “That job made me believe that everything happens for a reason,” she says, “because I had always wanted to cook Mexican food, and to showcase the flavors I grew up eating.”
As great as the position was for Lee (she helmed Caravan in its first two years), she came to a turn in the road when she had her daughter, Riley. She felt called to spend more time at home, so she traded in her executive chef title late last year and became a personal chef. So far, Lee says, it’s working out quite well; she spends more time with Riley (now 17 months old), less time managing staff and budgets and more time at the stove. She considers her clients’ culinary preferences as she designs weekly dinner menus and she introduces them to new foods — such as this traditional Korean seaweed soup, a nod to her own heritage.
“It’s custom for Koreans to have this soup after childbirth, and to eat it for a whole month,” Lee explains. “Seaweed has so many good things in it, so it helps with recovery. Then, because generations of moms have eaten this soup, it’s also tradition to have it on your birthday, in remembrance of your mother.”
“Birthday soup,” as it’s known to many Koreans, is true comfort food, warming and healing and packed with antioxidants and vitamins. Lee ate it herself for a month after having Riley.
“I never understood why my mom would make such a huge pot of it,” she says. “It would last a week or so. But then, I made it myself and I knew: seaweed blows up on you!”
Whether you’ve just had a baby yourself or are looking for a great wintry pick-me-up, try Lee’s seaweed soup recipe.
¼ cup dried seaweed
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ pound ground beef
4-5 minced garlic cloves
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 cups water
Note: Lee says that this soup is even more flavorful when reheated the next day, so you can always double (or triple!) this recipe to have leftovers or to feed a larger group.
In a large bowl, hydrate about ¼ cup dried seaweed in water for 10 minutes. Try seaweed brands such as Miyuk or Wakame.
Strain seaweed with a colander to remove water.
Heat up a soup pot, drizzle in ½ tablespoon sesame oil and sauté hydrated seaweed for 2 to 3 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of salt as you sauté.
Remove seaweed from pot and set aside. Add another ½ tablespoon sesame oil to pot, then brown ½ pound beef for 2-3 minutes. (Ribeye cubes are preferred here, but Lee’s mother used clams, so try what you like best!)
Add the minced garlic to pot and cook for 30 seconds.
Add seaweed back into the pot with beef, sauté for another minute and add 2 cups of water to cover.
Bring to a boil, then add 1 tablespoon soy sauce and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.
After cooking, taste and add more salt, if desired. Enjoy the soup on its own or serve over rice.