Olivia Lee became Korea’s first female chef to make a name for herself on the global stage. Now a mama of one, Olivia shares her drive and ambition to succeed in her career plus how she manages mom guilt.
Our That Mama this month is the dynamic and multi-talented Olivia Lee. Olivia, originally from Korea, is a professional chef – she became Korea’s first female chef to work at Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab, and went on to work for Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris. Olivia shares how when she first started out, a career as a chef was not popular amongst women but rather than that deterring her, it inspired her to succeed even more. She is wife to three-Michelin-starred restaurant Les Amis’ Director of Culinary & Operations Sebastien Lepinoy, mama to a 4-year-old Laura Dahye and now, the founder of SoGoodK, a purveyor of premium Korean products. Olivia tells us about her and her French husband’s power couple secrets and how it was she who first proposed to him! Olivia opens up about having mom guilt as a busy working mama but shares how she spends quality time with her daughter ‘I believe what is more important is the quality of the time spent together: a well-spent five minutes making positive memories, can be better than a whole day spent feeling distracted or frustrated.’ Read on for her interview!
Read our past That Mama interviews here.
Tell us something crazy/quirky about yourself
I am an extremely determined go-getter. Once I set my sights on a goal, I will do everything to reach it.
Tell us about your career pre and post kids
Having a successful career was paramount for me before having children, and I used to work a lot! Once I became a mother, I came to value work-life balance a lot more. I would try my best to be there for my daughter even during my busy days. Having children has also taught me how to handle difficult situations, even at work.
I have always been open and friendly to everybody, but managing children has taught me to see things in different perspectives, and also taught me to speak with even greater sensitivity and kindness.
Did you always want to be a Chef? What first inspired you to follow this career?
Yes, I love to eat, and wanted to be a chef so that I could get to enjoy good food! I also enjoy cooking for my loved ones, and that gave me more reason to become a chef. However, a career in the professional kitchen was not popular among women in my time. Instead of being deterred, it actually inspired me to become Korea’s first female chef to make her name on the world stage! This goal has driven me to constantly push my limits and hone my skills, and I did everything to gain as much learning experience as possible during my youth.
I hope that my journey will inspire other women to do the same and pursue their passions, unafraid of breaking societal norms!
Any fun stories from working in some of the top Michelin-starred kitchens around the world?
It was awesome because I learned many new things, from the sophisticated cooking techniques that opened my eyes, to the amazing array of unique and premium ingredients such as caviar, truffle, and gold. The working processes in a Michelin-starred kitchen are also highly organised. I wouldn’t say that there were any particularly fun stories though, for I was very focused on working and learning. The competition was cut-throat so it was more challenging if anything.
How long have you and your husband lived in Singapore? We hear your husband turned down a Michelin-starred opportunity abroad in order to keep your family in SG?
We have lived in Singapore for 8 years! I came to Singapore during a business trip in 2014 and was introduced to Sebastien through Chef Cheryl Koh whom I worked with in Dubai.
We are now both Singapore PRs (and it happened after Sebastien was awarded three-Michelin stars for Les Amis!) and we hope to raise our family here for as long as we can, for we love Singapore! I love how clean and green the country is, as well as how safe it is, hence, why we settled down here. We still love Singapore – it has excited us from the first day we moved here.
You and your husband have been called a power couple – how do you complement each other?
I think we complement each other very well! While my husband is usually shy and unassuming, I am more outgoing and bubblier. Though our personalities are very different, we connect through our deep interest in food and fine gastronomy! We communicate with each other a lot, which is one of the reasons we complement each other as well. Although we are on different paths, we always give each other our support by sharing advice, knowledge, and ideas without interfering.
We hear you were the one to propose to him – tell us about this!
Yes, I was the one who proposed to him first! I was in Singapore and Chef Cheryl Koh invited me to have drinks with a friend – he would turn out to be Sebastien. It was like love at first sight for him – because he went completely red and kept staring at me the whole night!
I fell in love with him when he asked me out for dinner at Les Amis! At the time, I didn’t know anything about his background or the restaurant, but I figured out he would be trustworthy since he was a friend of Cheryl’s. He truly impressed me with his food, starting directly from the bread course. I instantly fell in love with how generous and humble he was. After a few months, we met again in Japan and he was extremely romantic, remembering everything little thing I said in passing and making everything I hoped for happen: from eating crème brulee at 10pm to queueing for two hours in the morning cold at Tsukiji – even though he wasn’t one to eat in the morning!
When I realised that I couldn’t get him out of my head, I decided to make a surprise visit to Singapore. By the end of the week, I had proposed to him!
What’s your secret to keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
For me, I would say that supporting each other and letting him do what he wants is important. If we are busy, we try to find time for each other. We also don’t make any cause to worry about as we often keep in touch. On special days, we make it a habit to dress up to go out. For me, I believe that family is really important, which is why we always try our best to make time even if we are busy.
How do you balance motherhood and your career?
I am actually feeling rather guilty right now as I’m really busy with my work at SoGoodK’s. It is an extraordinary time and I find it a little challenging to balance work and motherhood. However, I will always try my best to be there for my daughter by always video-calling her whenever I get the chance! I also try to be there for her during the weekends as well, or even just reading her a book that she loves. I believe what is more important is the quality of the time spent together: a well-spent five minutes making positive memories, can be better than a whole day spent feeling distracted or frustrated.
Do you ever suffer from #momguilt – how do you deal with it if so – any tips for the rest of us?
I am a working mom, of course I suffer from mom guilt! But for me, I know that my baby will be happy when she sees and feels me being happy. Even though I am busy, I will always let her know how much I love her and care for her – and I see that she is starting to understand!
Apart from making whatever time you have to spend with your child count, by making it meaningful, by making memories in those little snatches of time you have; my advice is to always reaffirm your love and care for your children. It could be something as simple as telling my daughter: ‘Mommy loves Laura’, to which she always replies: ‘Laura loves mommy’. These little things mean a lot to children.
What’s your family’s go-to home-cooking cuisine?
We love to eat everything, from Korean to French cuisine. Our home cooking is varied, sometimes we even do a mix of both cuisines! We enjoy eating Kimbap and my husband loves Kimchi fried rice. Sometimes we would do steak and salad or simple foods like crabs. However, we don’t really have a favourite dish or style, because to us, the most important thing is that we are able to get good food and eat together whenever we have time. To us, having family time and being around each other is what matters the most!
What’s your parenting philosophy?
Try to be happy and positive while being responsible.
As you and your husband are both into fine gastronomy are you raising your daughter to be a foodie?
My daughter is still quite young so she might not be so curious about different cuisines. I’m sure her food preferences will change over time and I’m not worried as I always try to introduce her to good quality food and ingredients. If she doesn’t like them, I would use those ingredients and encourage her to bake or cook with me so that she will feel accomplished with her hard work and ultimately, enjoy the meal and moment.
Do you or your husband teach your daughter to cook?
We love to prepare food and enjoy family time together – it’s more a bonding experience than a lesson where we try to teach her a skill. However, if one day she is interested in learning how to cook, then my husband and I would definitely teach her! But for now, we would rather just enjoy the process as family time together.
Any favourite ingredients that your company SoGoodK brings to SG?
SoGoodK always brings the best premium Korean products such as Shine Muscat, and wild-caught seafood like eels and abalones. I would say that everything SoGoodK brings is my favourite! However, if I were to choose, I especially love Ganjang Gejang, which is soy sauce marinated raw crabs with lots of roe and meat! The secret soy sauce used to prepare the dish makes it extremely addictive. I also enjoy dried persimmons because they have such a succulent texture and sweet yet refreshing flavour! I can never stop eating them after taking the first bite.
What’s your favourite family ritual?
We always say hello in the morning. “Hello” and “thank you” are important things to say, I feel. They might be small gestures, but mean a lot, for they express the care, respect and gratitude we have for each other.
Favourite date night restaurants?
Before we had a child, my husband and I used to go on gourmet trips to try all the Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. We went to Les Prés d’Eugénie by Michel Guerard, a restaurant in Eugénie-les-Bains, France which has been awarded three Michelin stars since 1977. The atmosphere was romantically classic, and the food superb.
I wish I had more time for… Laura and my husband.
I always feel saner after…eating good food.
As a mama, I wish I were better at…being proud of my child.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about…my Pop-up shop!
My favourite moment of the day is...in the morning when my daughter comes to say good morning.
Thank you for a lovely interview, Olivia!