Chef Mike Lee works in the open kitchen of the Durham restaurant M Sushi in 2016. Lee’s vision includes a total of seven restaurant concepts, all within walking distance of each other in downtown Durham. 2016 News & Observer File Photo - Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com
Chef Mike Lee works in the open kitchen of the Durham restaurant M Sushi in 2016. Lee’s vision includes a total of seven restaurant concepts, all within walking distance of each other in downtown Durham. 2016 News & Observer File Photo - Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Durham County

The chef behind M Sushi and M Kokko has big plans to add more restaurants in Durham

January 26, 2018 01:21 PM

DURHAM

Durham chef Mike Lee is just getting started.

The renowned chef and restaurateur opened M Sushi in 2016, turning a Durham basement into a regional destination for sushi and achieving equal acclaim for the fried chicken and ramen he serves at M Kokko next door.

It’s all part of a much larger plan, as Lee’s vision includes a total of seven restaurant concepts, all within walking distance of each other in downtown Durham.

Lee expects to open M Kogi, a Korean barbecue concept, and M Taco, a taco joint, later this year. Both are about a year behind schedule, previously planned for the end of 2017 at One City Center, which is under construction.

Now he’s looking for another location and said said he hopes to open M Kogi and M Taco in the fourth quarter of 2018.

Lee’s concepts come in pairs, sharing a kitchen and built to complement one another. For M Sushi and M Kokko, Lee said not much cooking goes into the sushi side of the business, freeing up kitchen space for the fried chicken sandwiches, rice and ramen bowls coming out of M Kokko.

M Kogi and M Taco will work the same way, as will Lee’s next pair of restaurants.

The house specialty at M Kokko is “KFC” wings, the K standing for Korean — as in that country’s famously extra-crispy twice-fried chicken. Twelve bucks gets you eight wings, glazed with a classic soy-garlic sauce or a spicy-sweet sauce riddled with freshly toasted red chiles.
2017 News & Observer File Photo - Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Once Kogi and Taco are up and running, Lee will shift to his next projects: one built around Buddhist cuisine and offering a vegan menu and another that’s essentially a permanent pop-up spot, with the menu and chef changing often, but the space staying the same.

“It will kind of be a platform for many different chefs to have the opportunity to run their own menu,” Lee said of the pop-up spot. “They’ll determine what the place is going to be.”

Neither concept has a name nor a location.

Lee said the Buddhist cuisine spot will focus on vegetables, those local to North Carolina and those from Lee’s native Korea.

“We’re trying to work with a small menu and concentrate on a few ingredients instead of having a menu that’s a little everywhere,” Lee said. “This will bring something new to the area. Buddhist cuisine focuses on mountain vegetables; our goal is to try and use mountain vegetables indigenous to this area and bring in some specialty vegetables from the mountains in Korea and fuse them together.”

Lee calls the other concept a chef’s table. It seems less a restaurant for him as it is a playground for other chefs.

“The menu may run one day or two days or the entire week,” Lee said. “The chef could be from our restaurant or someone locally or out of town. It’s there for cooks and chefs to test out and play around with and have fun, giving up-and-coming chefs a way to get their name out.”

Lee said the format will typically be a set multi-course menu that will change at least every week and that the location will be set up to handle a large garden in the backyard.

In saving his most ambitious trick for last, Lee ultimately plans to launch a non-profit fast-casual concept. With the rising influence of chefs in their communities, Lee sees lots of money raised for admirable causes, all made possible by food. He wants to try that on a larger scale.

“As a cook and chef, we do a lot of non-profit dinners to raise funds for specific causes, literally thousands every time we go out,” Lee said. “That’s a lot of help and it’s awesome, but what if we create a business model out of that? Think how much Chipotle or McDonald’s make, but instead all that income used for non-profits. We’re working on a concept that’s unique and duplicatable and can franchise out easily.”

As for the food, it could either be grilled street food served with rice and sides or a take on the Bento box.

“Obviously there are a lot of things to consider,” Lee said. “But it’s actually easier than most people realize. I think it’s going to grow like wildfire once we have three or four really good models.”

Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson