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Member on the Menu: Danny Lee

November 16, 2016

In 2006, Danny Lee and his mother, Yesoon, decided to open Mandu, a restaurant that played to their strengths and represented their Korean culinary traditions and culture. They opened Mandu’s first location near Dupont Circle in November 2006 and five years later, the second one in DC’s Mount Vernon Triangle.  Since then, Danny has continued to promote Korean cuisine through frequent changes to the Mandu menus, as well as through cooking at various events around the country and world. 

What is the hardest part about owning and opening a restaurant?

For me the hardest part is finding the balance between the restaurant life and the personal life.  As an owner, your life becomes the restaurant and it is very hard to separate yourself from it.  But you need to spend quality time away, even if it’s just one day a week, in order to relax and decompress.  If you don’t, you will get burned out very quickly.

…and the most rewarding part?

The most rewarding part is when you have a night where everything clicks.  We spend so much time and energy on what we do, and we are incredibly hard on ourselves when there’s just the smallest mistake.  On a busy night where you see every single guest smiling and enjoying their meal and experience, it’s an incredibly satisfying feeling. 

What is it like working with your family? And who gets the final say?

My mother and I have really grown into our working relationship together.  When we opened ten years ago, there was so much stress and one of us would explode on almost a daily basis.  But as we figured things out, we figured out what each of our strengths and weaknesses were and started to find ways to complement each other.  It’s very seamless now and we are able to still create new dishes together in the kitchen.  According to her, she has the final say.

Where do you look for inspiration when putting your menu together?

For the past year or so, I’ve really tried to draw inspiration from childhood memories.  I’ll try to think back to certain moments of my life where my mom, or other family members, would cook a dish that I couldn’t get enough of.  Then I try to create that same dish in my own way, but still wanting to evoke that type of nostalgia in the guest who orders that dish. 

How are your restaurants influenced by the neighborhood they are located in?

Our two locations are located in two very different neighborhoods, and they each have fiercely loyal groups of regulars.  Our first location has always had a more casual, neighborhood atmosphere to it, and when you look at the neighborhood that we are in, it makes sense.  There are no high rises, only blocks of row houses that have all been historically preserved.  Our K St location is very different because it’s located in a large, 13 floor building right Downtown.  We made that interior a bit more modern, and built a larger bar.  Thankfully that seemed to fit how the neighborhood has evolved in the past few years.

How did you get started in the business? What was your first job in the industry and what did you learn from it?

My mom had a small deli when I grew up, and then in high school and college she ran a small Chinese style take away in Reagan National Airport.  I would help out on the weekends or whenever I could, but that is where we first started cooking and selling Korean food.  After college, I worked at the Oceanaire Seafood Room as a manager until we opened up Mandu.  The chef at the time, Rob Klink, really took me under his wing and showed me a lot of what I know now in the kitchen.  I owe a lot to him.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I can say for sure that my wife and I will still live in DC in five years, but I would love to expand the business to other cities.  We are working on a couple new concepts now that I believe will allow us to venture into new markets.  We have a great team right now between both Mandu locations and there’s nothing else I’d want to do than to grow with them.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

It wasn’t really a spoken piece of advice, but my father would always, no matter what our current financial situation was, offer help to anyone who needed it.  He said that there’s always someone you can help, and I’ve tried to carry that on as much as possible.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Musician.  I grew up in a very musical household and I think we all wanted to be professional muscicians at some point.

What song always makes you happy?

Anything by Prince

What is your favorite ingredient?

Eggs.  I’ve become obsessed with eggs recently.

You’re hosting a dream dinner party.  What three people would be at your table?

Andre Agassi – I grew up playing tennis and he was/is my favorite athlete of all time

Joe Gibbs – My parents loved the Washington football team and since I grew up in the 80’s, it was during our golden era where Joe Gibbs was our leader.  You never hear anything negative about him, only great stories of how he changed someone’s life for the better. 

Norm Macdonald – I just think spending a dinner with him would be highly entertaining.  My wife Natalie and I heard him talk a few months ago at the 6th and I St Synagogue, and we were laughing the entire time and he wasn’t even doing a standup routine.  He’s always been one of my favorite comedians.

It’s the last meal of your life  - what’s on your plate?

Fuddruckers Hamburger with wedge cut fries.  Period.

What are your pet peeves?

I cannot stand whistling at work, I despise it.  I also hate it when someone starts off a sentence with “I was just about to do that but….”

What is your favorite way to give back to the community?

As chefs, we do a ton of large charity events.  They are all great events and I am happy to support as many as we can.  However, I love the events where it’s a more hands on, face to face meet up with the actual community.  The Mount Vernon Triangle CID has actually been very great at promoting events like that by getting local businesses heavily involved with the community.  For instance, they just did a family fun day for Halloween where they had a pumpkin carving competition that each business competed in.  (we won!)

What’s your favorite go-to junk food?

Popeye’s spicy fried chicken.