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Hee Sook Lee, Founder of Koreatown’s Iconic 24-Hour Soondubu Jjigae Spot BCD Tofu House, Has Died

[dropcap size=big]H-[/dropcap]ee Sook Lee, Koreatown restaurateur and founder of the neighborhood’s renowned open-late fixture BCD Tofu House, died in early to mid-July. Over the last several weeks, the community began to share the news and reflect on her legacy after close friends and community organizations announced her passing on social media channels. 

Known for her enterprising spirit and philanthropic efforts in and beyond Koreatown, Lee founded her first BCD Tofu House location on Vermont Avenue in April 1996. Since then, she built more than 13 other locations in the United States. Every branch serves as a landmark of the vibrant Korean diaspora not just in the pockets of the Southland but also in the greater Tri-state area and Dallas, TX. 

In recent years, the Koreatown location on the can’t-miss corner of Wilshire and Kingsley has served as the 24/7 beacon for late-night clubbed-out stragglers and Sunday churchgoers alike. It is a simmering nexus of Korean generations where language and cultural barriers melt away under the simmering cauldron of silken tofu and spicy broth. 

Lee is most famous for popularizing the “soondubu jjigae” dish. It’s a soft tofu stew combined with one’s choice of meats and vegetables (or dumplings) then served rollicking and bright in a traditional tongue-searing Korean stone bowl. The silken tofu, mild on its own, absorbs the bold and savory parts of the soup as it curdles in the heat of the bowl and scrambles with the freshly cracked egg that thickens the stew to a velvety splendor. 

“To succeed in anything, you just have to be fanatically devoted to it,” Lee said in 2006, as reported by L.A. Times. “No matter what other people tell you, you shouldn’t look back.”

BCD Tofu House serves its signature dish with varying levels of spiciness; the more intense the heat, the redder the bowl. Lastly, every soondubu order comes with the tiniest fried whole fish imaginable. The resulting final dish and all of its banchan is a certified belly warmer to say the least.

Lee paved the way for other Korean chefs in America to specialize in the soondubu dish. According to the chef and business owner as told to Dr. Kristy H.A. Kang, soondubu was “a kind of dish for business people who wanted to have a quick lunch” before it was modernized for Americans. Today one of BCD’s main competitors in Koreatown is Beverly Soon Tofu, which was profiled by chef and journalist Anthony Bourdain on his travel and food show Parts Unknown. But whereas Beverly Soon Tofu helped provide a familiar meal for Korean immigrants since 1986, BCD Tofu House revitalized the dish with an entrepreneurial drive to transcend culture and race. Lee believes that at the time of its rise in Koreatown, BCD Tofu House was one of the few Korean restaurants in the dense enclave that was inviting in non-Korean diners. 

According to BCD Tofu House’s website, Lee gained culinary experience in her mother-in-law’s restaurant, which was operating in the Buk Chang Dong neighborhood of Seoul, Korea. She immigrated to America in 1989 in order to secure a fulfilling education for her then five- and seven-year-old sons. After studying design at Santa Monica College and completing her studies at the Gemology Institute of America, she revisited all former plans to move back home. Her children had become accustomed to life in the United States; in order to support their desires to stay, Lee took a gamble and pursued a career in food. After about a year of experimenting with soondubu, she was ready to operate. As an homage to the Korean neighborhood where she first developed her skills, Lee named her establishment BCD Tofu House.

“To succeed in anything, you just have to be fanatically devoted to it,” Lee said in 2006, as reported by L.A. Times. “No matter what other people tell you, you shouldn’t look back.”

Today, BCD Tofu House continues to deliver on its mission to pull Korean flavors into the mainstream. The marble countertops have been splashed a thousand times over with morsels from the large array of banchan plates.

Lee’s compassion and goodwill were felt by many. She was highly regarded for her position as President of the Global Children Foundation, a non-profit organization established in 1988 by Korean American mothers who wanted to bring aid to South Korean children who were coming out of the country’s economic crises during the decade. Her work with the foundation expanded into providing relief to children in other parts of the world such as Guatemala, Mexico, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. 

Alongside her transnational presence, Lee successfully trademarked BCD Tofu House to bring her tofu stew into households. Today, it is common to see Asian grocery store aisles stocked with her prepackaged soondubu. As Lee’s empire bubbled over into family kitchens, she is credited for transforming parents into culinary wizards in the eyes of children who were trying soondubu for the first time and believed that their respective mothers, fathers, and guardians had invented the comforting dish.

What's a best Friday dinner? Come to BCD for our Sweet & Juicy Galbi (BBQ Short Rib). #bcdtofuhouse #galbi #yummy #whatsforlunch #북창동순두부 #갈비 #koreanbbq pic.twitter.com/50grUndnbc

— BCD Tofu House (@BCDTofuhouse) July 12, 2019

Lee’s legacy and memory as a hardworking business leader are not without its share of questions around her treatment of workers. In March 2013, Lee’s hourly employees across eight of her BCD Tofu House locations filed a class-action lawsuit for wage theft and other damages, including failure to provide breaks rightfully earned per labor laws. The lawsuit was settled over two years later in November 2015, when the Korea Times reported that about 600 current and former employees would receive a combined $3 million in settlements. The growth of Lee’s empire revealed a familiar pattern in the restaurant industry: The plight of workers is often neglected and underreported when restaurant owners pride themselves on homegrown success. 

In the years afterward, Lee maintained a private life, but she remained committed to feeding her community. Most recently, Lee and BCD Tofu House had been working with Koreatown Youth and Community Center and their meal delivery program to help feed the neighborhood’s residents who are impacted by COVID-19. Her jjigae and other popular menu items bring comfort and familiarity to homebound elderly or immunocompromised residents who are currently unable to make Korean meals at home

To date, Lee’s location on Wilshire carries on its minor celebrity status. The televisions throughout the restaurant play press roundups of yesteryears on mute; it’s the digital equivalent to the photos with Tom Cruise and former Dodger player Chan Ho Park that mom and pop shops of Koreatown display quietly yet proudly on their walls after welcoming them into their establishments.

Lee was a devoted mother and wife who took care of others around her in ways that are well recognized by later-generation Americans: through sacrifice and food. She built a restaurant that lives true to the Korean family ideal that a loved person is a well-fed one.

Lee has stirred much fervor across the Pacific that even dignitaries and public figures from Korea make a point to visit when they are stateside. In January, Parasite director Bong Joon Ho took his cast and crew to BCD Tofu House to revel in their Golden Globes win. Lee’s restaurant was a destination that befits homey celebrations.

BCD Tofu House on Wilshire embodies a modern Koreatown but at the same time, it is timeless. With it, Lee fulfilled a promise to bring traditions into the urbanization that captured the zeitgeist of the 00s, but also to remix such traditions. The late 90s ushered in large scale projects backed by Korean inventors. Among these was the development of this particular location that the city knows very intimately today.

Today, BCD Tofu House continues to deliver on its mission to pull Korean flavors into the mainstream. The marble countertops have been splashed a thousand times over with morsels from the large array of banchan plates. The handles on the soondubu bowl have pooled with milky orange rivulets of spicy soup for thousands upon thousands of guests. With her food, Lee has left many patrons and food critics reexamining the scope of dine-in experiences. No one ambles out of BCD Tofu House without feeling wrapped in warmth.

Lee was a devoted mother and wife who took care of others around her in ways that are well recognized by later-generation Americans: through sacrifice and food. She built a restaurant that lives true to the Korean family ideal that a loved person is a well-fed one. She will be remembered for bringing a modern realm of possibility for how to feel Korean in America, and for introducing generations of people from all backgrounds to the comforting joy found in a stone pot of crispy rice.

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