Jiyeon Lee produced four number-one albums in the 1980s, but she gave up the limelight to focus on cooking. Now, she and her husband fuse Korean cuisine and Texas-style barbecue to droves of fans.
Heirloom Market BBQ in northern Atlanta is run by Cody Taylor, a Texan/Tennessean country boy, and Jiyeon Lee, a former teen pop-star from South Korea. The restaurant is small, off a highway, and joined to a vintage convenience store. It would be easy to miss if it weren’t constantly packed. In fact, so high is the daily visitation that, in 2013, three years after it opened, agents from the Department of Transportation made the owners empty the place of chairs; the bureaucrats hoped that this would lessen vehicular overflow which, spilling from the parking lot, was disrupting interstate traffic. (It helped.)
And, just in case you’re wondering, Lee’s erstwhile celebrity is not the reason for all the hubbub—people come for the food, which is damn good.
Taylor and Lee, who are married, fuse American barbecue and Korean cuisine, but it is not “Korean barbecue,” which is meat cooked on a charcoal grill. Taylor even grimaces at the fusion label. “It’s just us being us,” he stresses. Certainly, Heirloom sounds like fusion, though. On offer are ribs marinated in gochujang—a sweet, fermented chili paste–cooked in a Texas smoker, and a smoky gochujang-marinated pork sandwich topped with kimchi slaw and collard greens in Korean miso. But one can see what Taylor means: There is nothing tacky, forced or unnatural about the menu, which is probably the secret to their success.
When Lee was 18, after a brief stint in a high school choral group, she was signed to a record label in Seoul. It was the beginning of a dazzling career in which she would arguably become the country’s first bona fide pop idol; Taylor calls her the “Britney Spears of Korea” (and jokingly calls himself its K-Fed). Lee produced four number-one albums through the 80s, selling out venues across the country with her happy-go-lucky synth-pop. In 1988, she sang at the Seoul Winter Olympics.
But a few years of the spotlight was enough for the young starlet and, in the early 90s, she left showbiz for good. “It was really fun but I have more memories of tiredness, being burned out, people gossiping, and all that stuff,” she says. “It was very tough for a little girl. I wasn’t ready.”
In 1999 the ex-star moved to Georgia with her former husband, whose brother lived in Atlanta. (The city has one of the highest populations of Koreans in the country.) It was during the dissolution of that marriage that she rediscovered her love of cooking. As a child, she helped her mother operate a small food cart, selling late-night snacks in her neighborhood, like grilled chicken feet and soju. In America, coming out of a divorce, jobless, and in a new country, food seemed like a natural pivot. “I was always interested in cooking,” she says.
Lee began classes at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta. Though much older than her classmates and a foreigner, she excelled. “As soon as I started, it was an awakening sort of thing. Immediately, I was like, ‘This is it’,” she says. “I was happy.” In 2009, she took the grand prize in a regional competition, then ranked second in the American Culinary Federation’s national competition.
After graduating, Lee landed a job at Repast, an high-end restaurant in Atlanta where Taylor was working as a sous chef. They hit it off. “She would take me to Korean restaurants and I would take her to Southern stuff,” remembers Taylor. A few years into their relationship, Lee was invited by a South Korean cooking show to star in an episode exploring the cuisine of rural villages. Taylor went along and it was on that trip that they had the idea for Heirloom. During one shoot in which they made gochujang, Taylor realized, “It has all these dry, dehydrated ingredients—it looks just like a rib rub that we use in Georgia.” The gochujang, he later found, “actually acts as a glue for the rub, and catches the smoke a little bit better,” he says. “It’s worked out really well for us.”
Their first restaurant together, Sobban, was a Korean-American diner, but without the barbecue focus. It was successful; Bon Appetit listed it in the Top 50 Best New Restaurants in America, and it was featured on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods. But they had to shut it down following a landlord dispute. It never reached Heirloom’s heights, which has hit some sort of unanticipated nerve.
Now 46, with dark brown eyes, soft inky hair, and a beauty mark above perfect red lips, Lee credits Heirloom’s surprise success to a Korean culinary philosophy that stresses a strict balance between taste, texture, and temperature. It is in their side dishes where this is most apparent. Alongside the perfectly smoked meats is cold fermented daikon, spicy tofu, homemade sweet potato chips, and all kinds of kimchi. Lee believes that such light items temper the heaviness of a barbecue meal. “At the beginning people think it’s weird, and then when they start eating they say, ‘OK, this is very refreshing’,” she says.
“It gives us a little bit more of a creative angle, too,” adds Taylor. “In Texas, it’s just four meats, four sides.”
By no means were they confident the idea would work out. Neither of them had worked in a barbecue restaurant before, only fine-dining. They were simply using recipes that they were already cooking at home. “We were just making this shit up,” says Taylor. “But people found out about us. It happened really quickly.”
Lee in particular wasn’t very confident that American barbecue eaters would be into her native cuisine. But the masses, having spoken with their wallets, have assuaged her fears many times over. And though they don’t advertise Lee’s celebrity at Heirloom, the eatery still gets a regular flow of giddy Korean patrons asking for selfies with her. What really pleases Lee, however, is the culinary praise.
“It makes us really happy. It kind of feels like we’ve introduced a different way to eat, especially with the heavy meat. And people are happy about it. That’s a huge thing as a cook,” says Lee.
“To me, cooking is another stage. I can express myself with food. It’s an art, too—a very thoughtful art.”