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Friday, October 05, 2012

Well-seasoned chef

Parker Lee's culinary career has taken many turns.

Executive chef Parker Lee is not particularly impressed by celebrities. Or what they eat, be it a chocolate souffle for Mohammad Ali in Atlanta, a burger for B.B. King in New Orleans or 7,000-calorie meals for extreme athlete Tom Jones.

"I didn't treat anyone differently," recalled Lee, who has family in Roanoke and Lynchburg and moved to Moneta in 2010. "You're a VIP just like he was, or she was."

In the early 1990s, restaurants around the college town of Athens, Ga., provided a steady source of income, in addition to a reliable meal, for Lee, who was a student at the University of Georgia.

The restaurants also unearthed a latent talent for a man who described his childhood memories of food as "frightening."

Initially assigned to the kitchens scrubbing dishes, Lee found himself promoted over time to the position of sous chef, the second in command in the culinary hierarchy.

"I wasn't even trying," he said of his newfound talent. "I'd go to work, show up, leave and go to class."

But soon to be graduated and saddled with dual degrees in economics and psychiatry, Lee received a phone call from his father that he credits for changing his life.

"He called me up and said, 'Son, did you know there's such a thing as culinary school? I think it's something you should look into.'"

Two months later, Parker enrolled in The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. That was followed by two years of "intense, classical culinary training," he said. Students at the institute were taught an assortment of cooking techniques, food chemistry and international cuisines.

"Anything you could think of," said Lee.

After completing two apprenticeships and facing graduation, "there was only one chef and one restaurant I wanted to work for," he said.

Lee approached chef Patrick O'Connell of The Inn at Little Washington in eastern Virginia to perform a two-week stage, which is an unpaid culinary internship.

"At the end of the two weeks, I sat down with Patrick and he said, 'Parker, we love you, but we don't have a position for you.'"

Undeterred, Lee told the chef he would wash dishes instead, and was hired on the spot.

The inn was "where I made my bones," Lee recalled. "That job molded me into [becoming] a chef in my own right."

From that point, Lee embarked on a culinary journey that would span both coasts; from New York to Charleston, S.C., to Fayetteville, Ark.

In the early 2000s, Lee landed the position of executive chef for an exclusive club in Las Vegas. In charge of five restaurants and 115 employees, it was "an amazing job," he said.

"As a chef, I need a lot going on to keep my attention. Anytime of the day, I could be in another kitchen. And I loved that."

But it was during this time that Lee was revisited by an old back injury.

"It was career-stopping," he said.

Lee left the bright lights of Las Vegas and headed to more sedate Utah, because he was unable to work and needed rehabilitation. Attempts at recovery would stretch 10 months, and when finally complete, Lee was incapable of standing for the long hours required of a chef. His career took another turn.

As a condition of graduation from the Culinary Institute, Lee was required to become qualified as a nutritionist. His twin sister, Jolie Hornyak, who was living in Atlanta at the time, connected him with two retired Atlanta Falcons who needed dietary and training help. Lee instructed the players on how to rebuild muscle and injured joint areas while implementing dietary goals.

No longer restricted to the confines of a kitchen, but using the wide knowledge base he acquired in them, a new chapter in Lee's life unfolded: acting as a chef consultant.

Lee's charges for his expertise vary from client to client.

"I pay for myself. You should make more money by the time I leave," he said.

In this new capacity, Lee evaluates food and operation costs, assists in the creation of new menus and trains restaurant staff. Lee also gives wine consultations and "small, intimate dinners" of three- to five-course meals for parties of up to eight people.

Settled in Moneta, the 40-year-old former Roanoke resident said he's ready to expand his business.

"When I touch food, when I cut food, I treat it very passionately. I was born to be a chef."

Parker Lee: (385) 229-0528