“Cook what you want to eat yourself,” says Jerry Lee, explaining the success of Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar — the Asian fusion noodle emporium in the Santa Barbara Public Market — and Khao Kaeng, his new venture on Coast Village Road in Montecito. “We’re enjoying it quite a bit,” he enthuses about the latter, which he opened because his business partner, Chef Nui Pannak, wanted to expand the Empty Bowl menu.
Jerry Lee is a remarkable Santa Barbara success story. Born in Taipei, he came to the United States when he was seven years old. “I knew two words in English when I first arrived,” he recalls. In Taipei, Jerry’s father was a film director and his mother was a make-up artist, but they wanted better education and opportunities for their children.
The family first settled in Carmel to work at a family restaurant called Golden Buddha. Wanting to open their own business, Jerry’s parents drove around California and found San Luis Obispo, where they opened Mandarin Gourmet. Jerry washed dishes and, at age 16, started delivering food. “I didn’t know that running and owning a restaurant was something I wanted to do,” he says.
In 1993, during his senior year in high school, his parents separated. Dad went back to China, and mom took over raising the family. “It wasn’t a hate separation,” Jerry explains. “They took separate paths.” After more than two decades of separation, his parents got back together, and now live in Laguna Niguel.
Jerry’s mom still makes dumplings for both of his restaurants, using his grandmother’s recipe. “My mom comes up every other week, and she makes over 1,000 potstickers,” he explains.
Jerry and his best friend Tucker Papac came to Santa Barbara in 1994. Jerry took business courses at Santa Barbara City College, and by the end of that first year, he was baking for the Great Harvest Bread Co. He soon became general manager.
In 1999, he started working as a banquet server for the now-defunct Citronelle, eventually becoming manager and sommelier. “I got into wine working there with Chef Michel Richard,” he explains.
In 2002, he moved to the San Ysidro Ranch. He originally applied as a server for he wanted an easy life. Instead, he was hired as the manager and wine director. “I walked in and had to build a world-class list and money was no object,” he says. “I was a kid in a candy store. I built quite a list.” He laid the foundation for a cellar that would eventually be honored with Wine Spectator’s Grand Award, a global recognition for diverse and deep wine lists.
In 2009, he was hired to re-open the El Encanto resort. “It was the toughest year of my life,” he confesses. “That’s when I found out about the Public Market.”
He’d already been talking to Chef Nui and his friend and now-business partner Emre Balli, who he’d met at San Ysidro Ranch. Their Empty Bowl concept secured the market’s central stall. “I was scared for a while,” he whispers of the early days. “For a while we were holding things together. The Public Market slowly came together.”
Many of his Empty Bowl employees worked with Jerry at Citronelle, and he’s proud that they have a strong commitment to the business. “Most of the staff have been at Empty Bowl since we opened,” he confides. “I’m the type of boss who likes to get my hands dirty. I do not delegate.”
Recognizing that there was no Thai food on Coast Village Road, they opened Khao Kaeng as a full-service restaurant, with everything made from scratch. “I’m not a cook,” he humbly tells me. “I deal with the front of the house. I’m the brain behind the marketing — the ideas, the branding, the management. The only item on the menu that is Chinese are my mom’s dumplings.”
Last December, in the middle of a vineyard, Jerry proposed to Emily Cosentino, who works as the events and marketing manager for this newspaper. They will be married next summer.
Jerry Lee answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Owning a restaurant in Santa Barbara is not easy. I’ve been so lucky that the community appreciates what I bring to the table. Their support is everything. Thank you Santa Barbara!
Who do you most admire?
My mom for sure. She’s the most hardworking person I know. She raised my sister and me while working multiple jobs and providing us with whatever we needed. I owe all of my successes to her.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Wine wine wine. I can’t have enough of it. I love collecting rare wines and sharing them with good people over delicious meals.
What do you like most about your job?
Honestly there are many things I like about my job, but the two that keep me smiling are: seeing my regular customers that come in weekly to get their noodle fix and hearing my customers tell me Empty Bowl is their go-to restaurant in Santa Barbara. Many customers make an effort to stop in whenever they are in town.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Somewhere in the tropics with soft white sand, clear warm water, cold champagne in hand with my best friend/soon-to-be wife. She brings me so much happiness.
What is your greatest fear?
Spiders. I will be sound asleep and I can sense them crawling on the wall next to me and it wakes me up. I get chills just thinking about it.
What is your current state of mind?
Chilled, relaxed, and looking forward to a short work week. I am heading to Colorado later this week to celebrate my good friends’ bachelor and bachelorette party.
What is the quality you most like in people?
People who are genuine and honest. I also love to laugh so surrounding myself with people who have a great sense of humor is a must.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
I have a hard time getting along with people who are insecure and put down others to make themselves feel and look better.
What do you most value in friends?
I love my group of friends. We are so close with each other. We can travel for weeks without any drama; just pure joy and fun.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Generosity. The best things in life are meant to be shared.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Where’s Nico?” We have a very curious cat. He loves to play hide and seek. He will find the smallest spaces and somehow makes himself fit inside.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I love to be more artistic. I would love to be able to draw and doodle what I see in my travels. I would love to be able to play guitar while around a campfire.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I wish I could be more spur of the moment. I need to have a game plan for everything and when something goes off plan it throws me off too.
Where would you most like to live?
In a perfect world, I would split my time between Santa Barbara and Hawaii. I love it here in Santa Barbara. I’m surrounded by friends, nature, and community. But it’s hard to compete with island life.
What is your most treasured possession?
Photo albums from over the years before the internet was a thing.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My fiancée always keeps me smiling. She knows how to make me laugh, not just a chuckle either, but those big, belly-shaking laughs. She isn’t afraid to look silly if it gets me to smile. Everyone should have someone like that in their life.
What is your motto?
Work hard. Play hard.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Bruce Lee once said, “If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.” If you want it, then go get it.
On what occasion do you lie?
When grilled by my nephew and niece about the existence of Santa Claus.