Chef Michael Sang-Kyu Lee is the Executive Chef and driving force behind the Asian fusion restaurant Meisei; he exudes a passion and commitment to authenticity, using only the best ingredients, beautiful materials and has over-riding respect for nature which has enabled him to create some of the finest culinary creations in Bahrain today.
When was the first time you knew that food was going to be a big part of your life?
Amazingly, I can remember back to when I was 5 years old and living in Korea, I would go with my mother to the large produce markets; where I would see live sea cucumbers, fresh fruits, and traditional dishes everywhere. Spices and aromas filled the air, which is why I think I have such a strong memory from such a young age. I would eat the fresh produce straight from the stalls, amongst the hustle and bustle of the street vendors.
What is the inspiration behind your cuisine?
The women in my life – Firstly my mother (who is Japanese) and her home cooking; I remember when I was only 12 years of age, we were living in Canada, watching my mother cook. She would make incredible rustic Asian cuisine, it was mostly Korean inspired but she included influences in her cooking from all over Asia.
Secondly, my wife, who is also a restaurateur, comes from a Southern Italy, where food is not just a passion, but a way of life. Her simple rustic Italian cuisine is amongst my favorite in the world.
I think these memories permeate through to the menus you see at Meisei today.
Running a restaurant is hard work at the best of times, running the kitchen more so; did you always want to be chef?
When I was younger I wanted to be a fashion designer, a chef or a fireman, but what ultimately drew me to cooking was using my creativity daily. I never wanted to sit behind a desk, I have to be hands-on in everything I do; and believe me, I have done every job in the kitchen and front of house serving the diners. I have been a bus-boy, a waiter, pot-washer, and so on – you name it I did it.
I particularly took the time to understand the nuances of Japanese cuisine, I spent three years learning how to properly clean sushi rice; fillet fish, how to keep raw food fresh etc.
To run a good kitchen you have to have done it all, and I’m lucky in that I have a great team around me, some of whom have been with me for over10 years.
You have been lucky enough to travel the globe and were able to experience a number of different cultures when growing up. What is your favorite city or country for food?
Honestly, everywhere I go is a destination for food. If I had to pick one it would be the Caribbean Islands, where I also spent time growing up, but I love London and New York too. –I like to blend all my influences together as I believe you have to educate yourself across all cuisines and cultures; one isn’t superior to the other, be it fine dining or street food – if your guests love it then your job as a chef is done.
As an accomplished chef you have strong opinions on food and high expectations, what is your favorite place to eat and why?
My wife’s kitchen! She cooks very simple southern Italian dishes, for example home-made pasta, with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and parsley, and in that very Italian way she can rustle up an amazing salad out of nothing.
Could you share with us one of the dishes that you feel personifies the unique Meisei experience?
We are running our seasonal menu, where Japan meets Italy. We are currently featuring Portobello mushroom, which we import directly from Europe. We prepare them in a delicate mushroom risotto that we serve in a traditional Japanese Donabe clay pot,- straight from the kitchen to the table.