Ok Re Lee opened Korean Village 43 years ago and helped transform the city. Now, her beloved son is committed to carrying on her legacy

When you walk into Korean Village, one of the first things you’ll likely notice — besides the hanging plants and vines over tatami rooms — is the celebrity wall.Photos of stars like Sandra Oh, Jackie Chan and Nelly Furtado are plastered near the entrance, showing the restaurant’s star-approved status over the decades. But that wasn’t founder Ok Re Lee’s goal.“Some of the stars have been coming here for over 10 years, but most of the time my mom had no idea who they were,” says her son, Jason. Other customers would often point out a dining celebrity and suggest that Ok Re add their photo to the wall. “My mom didn’t care about status,” says Jason. “She treated everyone the same.” That’s clear when you see the other photo wall: it’s for Ok Re’s regular customers, whom she considered to be part of her extended family. The wall includes a customer who crawled underneath the restaurant’s tables as a baby. When he graduated from U of T 20 years later, one of the first people he visited was Ok Re. As Jason puts it, “My mother invested in people’s lives.”Ok Re left a successful career as an actress in Seoul to invest in her family’s future in Toronto. She arrived in 1978 with her husband and son and some meagre savings and no cooking or entrepreneurial experience. Still, Ok Re opened Korean Village on February 9 that same year. The restaurant was a pioneer; it helped shape the Bloor and Christie neighbourhood to become what is now Koreatown.Jason grew up in the restaurant. He watched his mother hold down the cash desk while writing up handwritten bills, stop by tables to greet customers and check in on their lives, cook, scrub the floors. She cared most about giving people quality food — she’d send meals back to the kitchen if they didn’t pass her inspection — and making sure that her guests were happy and full. That included her own staff. “She’d say, ‘I don’t want the dishwashers to be overwhelmed, so I want to help them out,’” Jason says. Throughout recessions and good and bad times. Jason says, it was his mother’s courage and selflessness that kept them going for 43 years. “She outlasted Michelin-star chefs and corporations. That’s especially impressive for a woman in a male-dominated industry.” In October 2019, Ok Re died unexpectedly. It was a devastating blow for the neighbourhood, her customers and, most of all, her beloved family. “I had been working with her here every day since 2007 — peeling potatoes in the back, cleaning,” says Jason, who has since taken over the business with his wife. “I’m always reminded of her.”Jason’s goal is to embody Ok Re’s care, love and generosity. During the pandemic, he has provided hot meals for essential health-care workers and the owners of neighbouring shops. He is keeping up his mom’s traditions — making kimchi from scratch, hand-stretching noodles — and has added a few of his own innovations, such as using delivery apps to get his mother’s food to more people. The heartbeat of the restaurant continues to pulse with delicious specialties like bulgogi, bibimbap and jjajangmyun.“I still carry my mom’s torch, the same passion for the food and the people,” says Jason. “I want to thank everyone who has ever stepped foot into this restaurant for supporting my mom…. I know she’s still here running the restaurant. I’m just the caretaker.”

Ok Re Lee opened Korean Village 43 years ago and helped transform the city. Now, her beloved son is committed to carrying on her legacy

When you walk into Korean Village, one of the first things you’ll likely notice — besides the hanging plants and vines over tatami rooms — is the celebrity wall.

Photos of stars like Sandra Oh, Jackie Chan and Nelly Furtado are plastered near the entrance, showing the restaurant’s star-approved status over the decades. But that wasn’t founder Ok Re Lee’s goal.

“Some of the stars have been coming here for over 10 years, but most of the time my mom had no idea who they were,” says her son, Jason. Other customers would often point out a dining celebrity and suggest that Ok Re add their photo to the wall.

“My mom didn’t care about status,” says Jason. “She treated everyone the same.”

That’s clear when you see the other photo wall: it’s for Ok Re’s regular customers, whom she considered to be part of her extended family.

The wall includes a customer who crawled underneath the restaurant’s tables as a baby. When he graduated from U of T 20 years later, one of the first people he visited was Ok Re. As Jason puts it, “My mother invested in people’s lives.”

Ok Re left a successful career as an actress in Seoul to invest in her family’s future in Toronto. She arrived in 1978 with her husband and son and some meagre savings and no cooking or entrepreneurial experience.

Still, Ok Re opened Korean Village on February 9 that same year. The restaurant was a pioneer; it helped shape the Bloor and Christie neighbourhood to become what is now Koreatown.

Jason grew up in the restaurant. He watched his mother hold down the cash desk while writing up handwritten bills, stop by tables to greet customers and check in on their lives, cook, scrub the floors.

She cared most about giving people quality food — she’d send meals back to the kitchen if they didn’t pass her inspection — and making sure that her guests were happy and full. That included her own staff.

“She’d say, ‘I don’t want the dishwashers to be overwhelmed, so I want to help them out,’” Jason says.

Throughout recessions and good and bad times. Jason says, it was his mother’s courage and selflessness that kept them going for 43 years. “She outlasted Michelin-star chefs and corporations. That’s especially impressive for a woman in a male-dominated industry.”

In October 2019, Ok Re died unexpectedly. It was a devastating blow for the neighbourhood, her customers and, most of all, her beloved family.

“I had been working with her here every day since 2007 — peeling potatoes in the back, cleaning,” says Jason, who has since taken over the business with his wife. “I’m always reminded of her.”

Jason’s goal is to embody Ok Re’s care, love and generosity. During the pandemic, he has provided hot meals for essential health-care workers and the owners of neighbouring shops.

He is keeping up his mom’s traditions — making kimchi from scratch, hand-stretching noodles — and has added a few of his own innovations, such as using delivery apps to get his mother’s food to more people. The heartbeat of the restaurant continues to pulse with delicious specialties like bulgogi, bibimbap and jjajangmyun.

“I still carry my mom’s torch, the same passion for the food and the people,” says Jason. “I want to thank everyone who has ever stepped foot into this restaurant for supporting my mom…. I know she’s still here running the restaurant. I’m just the caretaker.”

Source : Toronto Star More