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Local chef takes home Canadian culinary gold

SAIT alumna, Jinhee Lee wins the 2017 Canadian Culinary Championships. Coming in second was chef Joe Thottungal from Ottawa, and chef Eric Hanson of Edmonton claimed third.

SAIT alumna Jinhee Lee didn't set out to be a chef. She came to Canada from Korea to improve her English and take an accounting program. It wasn't until she decided to try SAIT's Student-for-a-Day program through the School of Hospitality and Tourism that everything changed for her.

"The SAIT chef instructor was showing us how to make Hollandaise sauce and you could really see his passion," says Lee. "I suddenly got goose bumps and I thought, 'I want to be like him.'"

That moment was the start of a winning career for Lee. After graduating from the Professional Cooking program in 2009, she went on to do an internship at Belgo Brasserie before landing at Hotel Arts under Chef Duncan Ly. Seven years later, in late 2016, Ly opened up Foreign Concept in Calgary and hired Lee as executive chef.

"Duncan Ly has been a great mentor to me," says Lee. "He is a genius with food and I have learned so much from him."

It was Ly's influence that encouraged Lee to jump into competition. In 2015 she received the Silver Medal at the Gold Medal Plates regional competition, then in 2016 she won  again to go onto the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna, BC on February 3 and 4, 2017. The two-day contest between 11 of Canada's top chefs, included three challenges — a mystery wine pairing, a black box challenge and the grand finale where Lee wowed the judges with her take on the traditional Vietnamese dish, Cha Ca La Vong, featuring turmeric fish paired with crab beignet and dill and scallion puree. It was enough to take home the gold which, along with the title, Canadian Culinary Champion, included a two-year lease on a 2017 BMW 430i xDrive Gran Coup.

"The judges really loved my dish! One even said it was worth taking his 14th flight to Kelowna just to taste it," says Lee.

"It means a lot that I won the gold, but I still have lots to learn. I want to challenge myself."

Lee says one day she would like to come back to SAIT and teach but she wants to get more experience in the industry first. "For now I just want to keep doing what I'm doing, learn different kinds of flavours and different kinds of cooking and improve as a chef."

Written by Alison O'Connor