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Flavor Profile: Namu Gaji's Dennis Lee

Photo: Aubrie Pick

After an R&D trip with Ryan Farr (4505 Meats) to check out barbecue in Kansas City and the Carolinas, Lee took the helm as chef at Smokestack, the counter-service restaurant coming soon to Magnolia Brewery’s Dogpatch location.

How did you get involved in the Smokestack project?

I have always been a fan of Dave McLean’s establishments, and he is a regular at Namu. It came up in a conversation once and snowballed from there.

What was the most memorable moment from the R&D trip?

We had an awesome personal tour of the Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Missouri by the Fantasma family. It was inspiring to see the success of a family business with similar values as ours.  

How would you describe your barbecue?

Nondenominational. Neoclassical. Delicious.

How will it compare to others in the city?

To me, BBQ is like ramen or pizza, everyone does it slightly different and everyone has a very specific idea of what it is and which is the best. As far as I know, Smokestack is the only place that does not have a gas line into the kitchen. And with all the character, talent, and culture behind the Magnolia family, I think our place will be unique.

When did you first know you wanted to be a chef?

When I wasn’t happy with the work of my chef and realized that there is no one better to execute your ideas than yourself.

Favorite ingredient?

I like to be constrained by the ingredients available to me. While not being purely hyper local, I think it is an important aspect of regional cuisine. So, I don’t have a favorite, it just depends on the day.

Most overrated ingredient?

Yuzu kosho or sriracha.

Tricks of the trade?

Tenacity.

Best thing you’ve eaten in SF?

I believe that San Francisco is easily one of the best food cities in the world and I think we often forget that. While there are is a lot of bullshit, you can’t find the quality, concentration, and variety that we have here in SF.

Dream soundtrack/album while cooking?

I don’t usually like to listen to music while cooking, unless it’s at a party. My life is so hectic, I cherish the quiet moments.

What do you make for yourself to eat at home?

Lots of freestyle vegetable dishes, and I love simple pasta dishes.

Greatest indulgence?

I always feel extremely indulgent when experiencing fine dining. The price, number of people, and equipment involved, time invested, ingredients—it’s crazy indulgent.

What motivates you?

The people around me. My employees, my peers, my family. They keep me in check and inspire me daily.

What would you request for your last meal?

A meal from my mother, of course.

Food trend you’re on board with?

I’m not sure what the trends are these days. I appreciate most of them for what they are.

Food trend that needs to die?

Cheap sushi—is that a trend? There are so many bad sushi places, it kills me.

What is your motto?

Live in the present.

Culinary person you most admire?

Michael Pollan.

Favorite food as a kid?

Ice cream was a big one. Hot dogs and pizza were right up there.

What most influences your food?

My interactions with Kristyn Leach, the Namu farmer, and the products she brings us.

Who do you most admire?

My oldest daughter for her ability to always be smiling and so caring. I also admire my youngest daughter for her strength and focus.

Favorite midnight snack?

Minoko sandwich. I invented this sandwich, a mini-okonomiyaki with oysters, kimchee, and cheese on one of our burger buns.

Whom do you most like to cook for?

The people closest to me. The rest of the world is a pretty close second though.

What’s in your refrigerator?

Lots of pickles, eggs, butter, lard, a few different cheeses, a Magnolia growler, homemade miso, gochujang and a bunch of other condiments, a bunch of raw pet food from Prather, a head of romanesco, some kale, and celery. We cook at home pretty regularly, and I have two kids.

Where do you go for a good drink and what do you order?

I am a fan of American whiskey. Alembic is a go-to spot for my crew for great drinks and food. 500 club for a shot and a beef after service.

Go-to takeout?

Merigan Sub Shop.

What Bay Area restaurants are on your list to try?

Box and Bells, Kin Khao, A16 Rockridge.

Favorite pairing?

Beer and grilled dry squid.

Beloved Bay Area haunts?

Toyose for Korean junk food and soju. Kevin’s Noodle House in Daly City. Nojo for brunch.

Don’t-tell-anyone junk food craving?

I like the occasional Spam-based meal.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten?

Fresh killed raw beef liver, bear, dog, live octopus, guinea pig, snake, turtle—I’m not sure which is weirdest.

Culinary habit you’d most like to kick?

Eating really late at night. I’m getting too old for it.

If you weren't a chef, you'd be….?

Martial artist.

Any dietary restrictions?

I don’t eat much beef.
Happiest food moment?

There are many. Most recently eating at Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway South Carolina, with Mrs. Scott hosting us was an incredible experience. It was one of those magical moments that can never be relived. It was the last stop of our Carolina tour, and every aspect of the experience was special. That place was pure expression of a time and place and the BBQ—transcendent.

Customer pet peeves?

Finding out they have an allergy after the food gets to their table and they take a bite.

Favorite culinary journey?

Korea is incredible. My recent BBQ tour of the Carolinas was quite a culinary journey.

Describe your kitchen persona in one word.

Calm.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

A poet or painter.

How far would you travel for a killer meal? Where to?

I would travel to other planets if I could. I love to see and experience regional food cultures new and old.

Strangest customer request?

Last night someone asked for their two pounds of prime rib to be cooked ¼ medium, ¼ well, and ½ rare.

What’s the first meal you made that made you proud?

Probably Thanksgiving when I was a teenager.

Most treasured possession?

My health.

Greatest professional moment?

Cooking BBQ for Alice Waters and her friends was memorable.

What’s next?

Lots of BBQ.

See all of our Flavor Profiles here!

This article was published in 7x7's May issue. Click here to subscribe.