If you’ve lived in the College Station area for much time, you’re probably aware that Chef Tai is EVERYWHERE.
Just check out his twitter feed and you’ll be amazed. The man never rests.
There he is, with Texas A&M’s star running back Traveon Williams at the Kids1stFund event supporting Aggie Coach Jimbo Fisher and his nonprofit organization seeking to find a cure for Fanconi anemia, a rare blood disease.
Four days earlier, Chef Tai catered the Texas A&M Department of Visualization’s Chillennium event,a “game jam” in which students from around the world convene in an enormously popular code-fest creating video games from scratch.
Three days before that, Chef Tai spent a part of his day speaking to a hospitality management class at Blinn College.
And...there he is again! At H-E-B, Kyle Field, the RELLIS Campus, and on the Brazos Valley Economic Development Strategy Committee, an austere group which also includes College Station Mayor Karl Mooney, Bryan Mayor Andrew Nelson, and Blinn College Chancellor Mary Hensley.
He’s here! He’s there! He’s everywhere!
Chef Tai Lee is College Station’s 39-year-old culinary wizard and business maven who is, it seems, taking the world by storm.
Tai was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. His grandmother and mother were restaurant owners. His mother’s restaurant was in the same building as the home in which he was raised, so cooking was a part of his everyday life.
“In the Korean culture, women work in the kitchen and men go off to jobs, so I wasn’t really encouraged to follow in my mother and grandmother’s line of work,” says Tai.
By the way, his first name rhymes with “stay.”
His grandparents moved to the U.S. in 1987. Six years later, at the age of 12, Tai convinced his father to let him visit America. That trip to his grandparents’ home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, changed young Tai’s life.
“I couldn’t believe the schools!” Tai says. “They had so much grass! High schools in Colorado Springs looked like colleges in Korea!”
Tai was hooked on America and begged his father to let him stay. His grandfather agreed to let Tai move in with one stipulation: If he didn’t maintain good grades in school, he would be sent back home.
“‘Buried’ is the word my father used,” Tai says with a smile.
After spending virtually all of his seventh-grade year in an English-as-second-language class, Tai fully committed himself to his education. Through both junior high and high school, he scored straight-A marks in his classwork. His success earned a Presidential Commendation from President Bill Clinton.
Both his father and grandfather were pleased with young Tai’s academic achievements.
“One of the things I loved most about America was the space program,” Tai says. “I was fascinated by astronauts and rockets and all that, so I decided I wanted to major in aerospace engineering.”
Tai’s high school counselor was married to an Aggie and she encouraged him to consider attending Texas A&M. His parents flew in from South Korea and with them, Tai made his first visit to College Station.
“Most Americans take great pride in their independence,” Tai says. “But Korean people, really, all Asian cultures, see the group as more important than the individual. That thinking really stood out when we visited Texas A&M. Call it ‘uniformity,’ but that really appealed to my parents—and me—so A&M is where they wanted me to go to college.
“And with that decision, I became an Aggie.”
Tai enrolled at Texas A&M for the 1988-89 school year, but spent only one semester as a future aerospace engineer.
“I just couldn’t do the math,” he admits.
Tai switched his major to business and eventually obtained a finance degree through A&M’s Mays School. He graduated with his sights set on conquering the corporate world.
Tai obtained his green card as a permanent U.S. resident after his freshman year at A&M. The process, though, required him to work for a year and contribute to the country’s tax base. Tai landed a job at College Station’s Haiku Sushi & Hibachi Grill. He worked there part-time until his graduation in 2003, then took a full-time position at the restaurant.
One of Tai’s Mays School professors, Steven Carr, was a Haiku regular, and after seeing Tai’s proficiency in the kitchen, he suggested his former student consider an alternate career path which had little to do with his finance degree.
Carr saw in Tai a unique mix of “dictatorship and creativity” which Carr suggested would make Tai a good fit for the restaurant industry.
Thus, “Chef Tai” was born.
Knowing he had much to learn, Tai landed a job with the California-based Panda Restaurant Group. Tai says Panda’s Chinese-born founder Andrew Cherng has been a significant influence in his own life.
“I eventually worked as a management trainer in the opening of new Panda Express restaurants around Texas,” Tai says, “and when Mr. Cherng would visit, he made it a point to learn—and remember—every one of his new managers’ names.”
Tai watched, listened, and learned.
Throughout his Texas travels, Tai remained friends with a couple who were also Haiku regulars, Mike and Taffy O’Brien. Mike O’Brien is a prominent Texas attorney and the O’Briens live on “Lucky Shamrock Ranch” in Washington County.
With Tai’s natural gifts, business education, and Panda Group training, O’Brien thought his young friend was ready to go out on his own. The O’Briens had so much faith in Tai that they bankrolled his first restaurant venture.
Veritas Wine and Bistro opened on University Drive in College Station in 2007.
Tai has called Veritas a “niche” restaurant, but the concept of offering a “gourmet experience” in a “less-than-formal setting” has caught on. Veritas is one of the area’s most popular dining destinations.
Three years after opening Veritas, Tai added a second establishment to his budding restaurant empire, introducing his Chef Tai Mobile Bistro. On his website at www.cheftai.com, Tai calls his food truck the first to be “officially sanctioned in the Aggieland, the First Food Truck to be owned by an Aggie in the Aggieland, and the First Truck to be allowed inside the Texas A&M University (campus) to serve Aggies.”
Tai calls his Mobile Bistro menu “globally inspired.” It includes such items as barbecue pulled pork, tacos, Korean short rib barbecue, and Brussels tofu florentine.
New to the Chef Tai Mobile Bistro menu is the “American Wagyu Beef Burger,” which Tai calls an “Aggie collaboration utiliz(ing) the best ingredients available on the market.”
The Mobile Bistro was an immediate hit in College Station, especially on campus and at Texas A&M home football games. In 2011, thanks to his sizable following among Aggies, Chef Tai won the Food Network’s “America’s Favorite Food Truck” contest, pocketing a $10,000 first prize.
Actually, “pocketing” would be incorrect. In an interview with the Food Network following his win, Chef Tai said the money would be used for the Texas Wildfire Relief Charity and to “fix up our food truck to be interstate-travel ready.”
On the road to global domination?
While Chef Tai may still be short of that goal—he admits the thought of going mano-a-mano with national food chains in large cities is not a proposition which makes much business sense to him—he has further expanded his restaurant group in the College Station area. In addition to Veritas and his Mobile Bistro, Chef Tai now owns and operates Paolo’s Italian Cuisine, also on University Drive, and Madden’s Casual Gourmet in downtown Bryan.
Chef Tai bought controlling interest in Madden’s from owner/founder Peter Madden in 2015. The two first met through their shared passion for commercial food-trucks.
“As soon as I sold Tai my food truck, I started asking my followers on Twitter about a stand-alone taco shop concept I had,” Madden said.
Since selling controlling interest of Madden’s to Chef Tai, Peter Madden is now focusing his attention on the “stand-alone taco shop” he calls Mad Taco, which now has locations in both Bryan and College Station.
Chef Tai’s newest food venture is just down the street on William D. Fitch Boulevard from Mad Taco’s College Station restaurant. Urban Table is set in a two-story building located in the new CityView Southwest retail development at the intersection of Fitch and Barron Road.
“I wanted to bring something to the tens of thousands of people living on the south side of College Station,” Tai says. “These families have a certain level of sophistication and they understand what eating nutritious food is about.
“The Urban Table menu is what I call new American cuisine,” Tai adds. “Downstairs dining is for families with children, while upstairs, where the bar is located, is more for adults. As someone with two boys myself (ages five and eight), I know that spatial separation between kids and empty-nesters or young professionals is a good idea.”
“We’re super excited because our menu at the Urban Table was a hit in taste tests.”
As for the future of the Chef Tai Restaurant Group, Tai hopes the Urban Table concept will enable him to broaden the franchise to locations in places like Waco and Conroe, “decent-sized cities” where Tai can avoid the “gunfight” required to do battle with the multi-million-dollar chains.
At the rate Chef Tai Lee is going, who knows? Maybe someday he’ll be a billionaire restaurateur on a first-name basis with all his employees and many of his customers.
Don’t bet against him. He’s already mastered those social skills.