Seoul Searching

Seoul Searching


Theresa Lee’s winding road leads to royal Korean cuisine.

Seated before a long table spread with a myriad of miniature dishes at Sura Korean Cuisine in Oakland’s Temescal district, I imagine I am a queen, indulging in royal purple cabbage, golden fish cakes, vibrant orange squash, pale-pink radish, verdant greens (broccoli, parsley, and seaweed salads), and a bright red contingent of various kimchis—and these only constitute the complimentary side dishes (banchan) that accompany every meal. This feeling of being taken care of like I am someone special is   fitting—because in Korean, the word sura refers to meals prepared just for royalty.

Sura’s charming owner, Theresa Lee, is both a gracious hostess and an accomplished chef, nimbly switching between warmly greeting guests and cooking up large pans of sauces and stews in the kitchen.

As she brings me her light-and-healthy versions of a seafood pancake, translucent yam noodles dotted with red and yellow pepper crescents and a bubbling cauldron of fiery tofu, Lee describes the journey that brought her to this restaurant. It was far from an easy path.

She confides that growing up in Seoul, living with an extended family of 20 to 30 relatives and a grandmother who supervised a cadre of cooks and helpers to prepare meals for the entire household, Lee never had the chance to practice in the kitchen. But little Theresa watched.

“Back in Korea, breakfast was the most important meal of the day,” Lee says. “It was big—like dinner here, with lots of dishes, most of them freshly made. When I was about 7 or 8, my brother and I had to get up early, while it was still dark, to help with housework and cleaning, while Mama and Grandma were already preparing food and everyone was busy running around. In Korea, they don’t have meals with courses like you do here. Everything—appetizers, main courses, and dessert—are laid out on one table in many bowls for people to share.”

In 1979, Lee, who was in her early 20s, left her family and moved to San Francisco with her new husband. He was also Korean but had relatives in the United States. They had met in college, where Lee studied economics.

“My parents were not happy about me coming here, because they heard that in the U.S., women’s lives are horrible.” Her parents were referring to the fact that in Korea of the 1970s and ’80s, upper middle-class women were not expected to work outside the home.

It’s hard to imagine, but this talented woman who efficiently manages a successful restaurant (and is also a published poet) was all but paralyzed by culture shock during her early years in her new country. “I had a very hard time adjusting,” Lee admits. “For the first six months, I couldn’t go outside and be surrounded by foreign-looking people. It made me so nervous that I felt sick.”

With encouragement from her husband and in-laws, she began attending community college to learn English and got her driver’s license.

“My husband was busy working as an engineer. He had lived here before and had family to depend on. It was OK for him. But for me, I had no friends or family and no communication,” Lee says. “I needed something to do at home, so I read cookbooks. That’s how my interest started. I went to bookstores and looked for cookbooks with pictures. Then in 1980, a friend introduced me to the chef at Emilio’s Restaurant in North Beach, and I worked there for a few months helping out in the kitchen and making salads.”

“But my family in Korea got upset when they heard I was working in a restaurant. They told me I should go back to school and become an engineer. So I learned mechanical drafting (but, oh, it gave me such a headache). I got a certificate in engineering but had no interest in doing that kind of work.”

Instead, Lee worked for six years in the accounting department of an equipment leasing company with several Korean employees. One day, a co-worker brought in a Korean newspaper and Lee noticed an ad about a restaurant for sale. “Since I’ve always been interested in cooking,” she tells me, “I thought, ‘Why not?’”

“My co-workers thought I was crazy. ‘Do you have any experience?’ they asked. I didn’t, but I was always dreaming about cooking. Everyone laughed at me. Then I went to church and told the other church members   I wanted to own a restaurant. They said,   ‘Theresa, what are you talking about? You have a good job; just forget about it.’ ”

But Lee had fallen in love with her new plan. She called the man who placed the ad, and one week later, gave notice, and became the owner and manager of an Oakland cafe.   “I was so silly, ” she says. “I had no experience in the restaurant business, and I quit my good job to pursue my dream. The people at the leasing company warned me, ‘You’ll be back in two years.’ My old supervisor said, ‘You’ve worked so hard; we’ll save your job for you.’ I said OK, but I never went back.”

After a few years managing the Oakland cafe, Lee sold it. Then, thanks to her many friends in the restaurant business, she gained experience at a series of eateries with different  cuisines, including American, Japanese,   Chinese, and French. She finally purchased an Italian deli on Piedmont Avenue. “After that,” says Lee, “I decided I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to do, so no more restaurant businesses. I told my friends that I’m tired, so I’m going to look for something else to do and I threw away all my recipes.”

Just then, however, one of Lee’s friends who had a Korean restaurant in San Jose wanted to open another in Oakland. She asked Lee to look at a spot on Telegraph Avenue that used to be a post office. “This was in 2005 or 2006,” Lee says. “I knew the Piedmont area, but not Temescal. So I did research. Neighbors predicted that Temescal would be a hot spot. I told my friend I would help her a little bit to settle in. But at the last minute, after we signed the papers, she had a problem and had to pull out. So I took over the whole business myself, even though I didn’t know how to cook Korean food.”

Since the housekeepers and her mother and grandmother had been in charge of the cooking when she was growing up, Lee only knew how to make simple things. “And I thought of Korean food as ‘headache cuisine’ because you have big tables, full of dishes,” she says. “I was afraid that it would be so complicated. People said don’t worry; just hire a cook. But with my character, I needed to learn Korean cooking myself first, and then I could train other people.”

Lee returned to Korea, took short classes, and worked in different restaurants for a month or two here and there. She traveled the country visiting famous restaurants and tasting their food. “I learned that Korean cooking has very healthy, simple recipes,” says Lee. “Before that, I thought it was just spicy. In Korea, I also researched royal recipes and healing temple recipes and combined those with simple home-cooking dishes.”

She went back and forth to Korea for two years. It took a long time to open Sura, because the spot had never been a restaurant before, and the city of Oakland’s inspectors kept asking Lee to make changes. She almost gave up, but finally opened Sura in 2007.

A waitress now brings over another dish Lee wants me to try: her Sura Naengmyeon noodles, a traditional recipe of buckwheat noodles that she has adjusted with more vegetables, seaweed, organic spring mix, sesame powder, chili sauce, and meat. As she snips the noodles with scissors and serves me, she says, “I keep researching to make our dishes healthier and lighter, not heavy, like traditional Korean cooking. With my experience in Western cooking, I know we don’t need to use MSG. And we have great local produce to substitute for some Korean vegetables. One important thing I emphasize is having different colors represented, using all natural colors from fruits and vegetables.”

After she opened Sura, Lee tells me, a rumor spread among the Korean community that she employed food coloring to enhance her dishes’ appearance, and some of her regular customers stopped coming. Lee bumped into a former loyal customer, a businesswoman who used to treat her clients to frequent lunches or dinners and asked why she hadn’t seen her in Sura for months. The woman confessed to the food coloring assumption. When Lee denied it, the woman asked, “Then how do you make everything so pretty?” Lee explained that she only uses natural coloring: the daikon gets its pink hue from beet juice; cumin makes the potato curry yellow; she uses spinach and parsley juice to make things green; red cabbage juice for purple; and unsweetened cocoa powder for brown. The woman apologized.

As Lee pours me a final cup of barley tea and insists on boxing up the leftovers for me to take home, she tells me she is about to embark on her new dream. She is planning to sell her restaurant and enroll as a full-time student at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco with the goal of teaching healthy Korean cooking. Wherever she cooks, she promises to deliver “enjoyment, good taste, healthy food, and excellent service.” What more could a king or queen desire?

This article appears in the September-October 2013 issue of Alameda Magazine
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