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Nineteen-year-old George Lee has captured the attention of many, including “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi and vegan chef Chloe Coscarelli, who are just two of the plant-based cook’s 688,000+ Instagram followers. Over on TikTok, Lee commands the attention of over 552,000 and has quickly developed a signature style with short how-to videos that showcase his passion for vegan and vegetarian fare as well as his roots in Taiwanese cooking.
“I don't see myself as like, 'Oh, I'm a star … with a fan club,'” Lee told TODAY Food over Zoom. I'm just like, 'OK, I'm happy that a lot of these people are interested in my love for what I do.'”
The young cook, who has trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, launched his Instagram last March when the coronavirus pandemic was starting to pick up steam in the U.S. Lee, who is currently a biochemistry student at the University of California, Berkeley, had gone to visit his brother in Hawaii for spring break but ended up staying and living with him for the rest of the year. He turned to cooking after the abrupt move and what initially was a way to pass the time (while feeding himself and his brother) quickly morphed into a full-fledged creative pursuit with a recipe website and multiple social media channels.
This May, Lee returned to his hometown of Taipei, Taiwan, and we caught up with him on the last day of his 14-day quarantine as he reflected on the impact of his pandemic obsession.
“I think it was just the time and place and everything because … (it was) the pandemic when I first started my whole media, online stuff. I was cooking more and eating more plant-based,” Lee said. “I think a lot of people as well. They were just staying at home more and not a lot of people like to — I think that's the general consensus — butcher down whole beef or chicken just to cook themselves a meal. I think a lot of people eat vegetarian when they're at home. And I was doing that a lot.”
He added, “I really think that plant-based is the future. And I just wanted to start incorporating it into my own diet as well, because I just found it more healthy and more like, well, I just have more energy.”
Since he started developing his own recipes, Lee estimates he has about 150 recipes in his repertoire to date with some still in progress and about 80 published on his website. He’s also working on a cookbook specifically about vegan Taiwanese food, something he has already been doing with plant-based takes on quintessentially Taiwanese dishes like sticky rice and popcorn chicken, where he substitutes cauliflower for chicken.
“I wasn't always vegan or vegetarian. I was just very interested in cooking and watching food shows and travel documentaries since I was little,” Lee explained. “I think there's a photo of me when I was like six years old, like decorating a cake. I guess that's how much I liked it.
"But I first was exposed to plant-based cooking, which is what I do now, around when I was like 16. I remember I just Googled a recipe for vegan cookies, and I was like, testing out — if you're familiar with the ingredients — they use chickpea brine and the brine on the chickpeas, you whip it into this kind of egg white-like thing called aquafaba. That's when I was first very interested in vegan or vegetarian cooking because that was just mind-blowing to me that you can make such substitutions.”
Lee tries to make his recipes easy and accessible for the home cook, reaching for common ingredients like mushrooms and beans, but also makes a concerted effort to highlight Asian ingredients, too.
“I love using stuff (with) umami flavor stuff. I like seasonings and sauces or fermented goods like fermented bean paste, if you know like doubanjiang, or miso paste. I love using that to add flavor to a lot of things. I think miso definitely has a place in everyone's pantry, not just like for miso shiru, miso soup, but for like, you know, adding a little bit of umami to making homemade seitan or that vegan meat thing, or even adding in little depth of flavor to hot chocolate.”
Fans have taken note and shared with him how much they've enjoyed his recipe videos. “One of the feedback I get is like, ‘Oh, like, this dish really reminds me of my childhood,’" Lee said. "I get messages from Taiwanese people who don’t live in Taiwan anymore … (saying) ‘I love watching your videos because it reminds me of my childhood,' and I just think that’s really kind and warm.“
Lee's aforementioned frozen baked sweet potato recipe was inspired by the sweet potatoes he grew up buying at convenience stores and street vendors in Taipei. He created a frozen treat that’s essentially a caramelized popsicle with what he describes as a “perfect ice cream-like texture."
“I found it to be ridiculously easy when I was testing it," he said. "You pop it in the oven and you don’t even poke holes because you want to kind of trap the steam.”
For Lee, it's as much a versatile recipe as it is simple. “I also enjoy it a lot when it's hot, straight out of the oven. I think people should enjoy both as well, like eat some hot with your family, and you can make a huge batch and just freeze it and enjoy it later. In that case, you would eat the hot ones and then freeze (the others) until they're totally cooled down, and then pack them in a freezer bag and just freeze them (for at least 4 to 5 hours).”
In addition to his college studies and recipes and videos, Lee has ambitions to make his mark in the alternative meat industry.
"I am thinking about also pursuing the whole plant-based startup sphere … I've been working in, there's an alternative meat lab in Berkeley and so, I've been going in here and there, like, within the constraints of COVID of course, taking a class on entrepreneurship and startups, just familiarizing myself with the whole space. But I do feel like I would like to start a plant-based startup, maybe in the future, if I have a good enough idea, sort of like Impossible Foods. That would be the dream to popularize some form of really cheap and accessible plant-based options."