Lily Lei is 114 years old, or so goes the running joke around Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen.
Pictures in the back hallway of the stylish new Chinese restaurant on President Street show the ageless Lily happily serving such luminaries as Richard Nixon and Jimi Hendrix. It's a funny bit of Photoshop magic.
But the photos are a good metaphor for Lily's eventful life. By the time her business partner in Lee Lee's, Karalee Nielsen Fallert, bounded into her restaurant in Provo, Utah, at the age of 18, Lily Lei had already lived a lifetime. As a young woman in 1976, she had immigrated halfway across the world, from China to Canada, lured by her fiancé. Or perhaps you could say, expedited by her family. It's quite a story. The boy was a classmate of her brother's. She met him when she was 14. He soon moved away to Canada with his family, but kept in touch, writing letters to her over the years. The summer of her graduation from high school, he came back for a surprise visit, much to her father's dismay. "My father is old-fashioned," says Lily, and he was upset that a boy dared visit without making a proposal. The boy's response? "Oh, that's easy, we'll get engaged." And with that, young Lily found herself betrothed, having banquets thrown in her honor, and moving to Canada. "I didn't have much say," she says today with a good-natured laugh. Apparently, it all worked out just fine. She and her husband — Lee Lei — have been together ever since.
Her family soon followed her to Montreal, and from there they all moved to Calgary. Her father, a foodie before there were foodies, made another big decision on her behalf. "He informed us he was to open a restaurant," says Lily, "and that we were going to help."
Her father grew up in Shanghai and raised Lily and her siblings in Taiwan. "If you lived in [mainland] China, you wouldn't get to taste so many regions, but I was exposed to all these regions of food," says Lily. "My father never took us on trips. If he had money or extra time, he would go to eat. I grew up thinking it was just about the food."
That restaurant they opened in Calgary, Leo Fu's, is still there. Her brother runs it and has kept many of the original cooks and servers.
Lily worked there for years too, mainly in the front of the house. Her father was in charge of the kitchen and recipes. "I didn't get into the kitchen because he always did that," says Lily, "and he was a very secretive man."
Indeed. Her father was an intelligence officer in the Chinese air force, collecting information in Laos during the Vietnam War. He put his spy skills to use as a father, too, always checking up to see that his kids were doing what they said they were doing.
As much as being a spy was part of his DNA, eating might have been more so. All of the recipes that Lily is using at Lee Lee's are the ones her father developed so many years ago. "They evolved from our home cooking," she says. Before Lily and her husband moved to Utah, she finally got her father to relinquish his recipes so she could open China Lily, which is where her life first intersected with Karalee, who was attending Utah Valley State College, waiting tables, and singing in rock bands.
"I wasn't a very good waiter," laughs Karalee now. "I work dirty."
"I had to yell at her a lot to change her dirty apron," laughs Lily.
That was a lifetime ago, and 20 years later, the women have reunited in Charleston to open Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen.
For them, it feels full circle.
"She has aged," jokes Lily, "and I haven't. We are on an even plane now."
Karalee says working with her mentor is a dream come true. Over the years, as Karalee opened various restaurants (Poe's Tavern, Taco Boy, Monza, Closed for Business), she would reflect on the lessons of Lily. "She was my tiger mom. She could do it all. She'd argue and haggle with vendors. I'd watch her, and she'd know everyone's name. She could work the room. She'd yell at us, but she took care of people too."
Lily, who admits that she yells quite a lot ("tough love"), thinks her father would approve of this business relationship. "My father was very intuitive and right about people," says Lily. And he liked Karalee a lot — thought she was spunky — telling Lily she should probably yell at Karalee less.
When the two reconnected with a phone call after the Lees relocated to Seattle and lost touch with everybody, Lily was a bit surprised when Karalee told her that she was her inspiration, her mentor, and how she wanted to bring her to Charleston to consult on a project.
"Really? I thought," says Lily. "After all the yelling?"
A visit to Charleston helped their relationship evolve into an adult female friendship of equal standing. Lily chose to stay at Karalee's apartment, and the two spent lots of time together. Karalee remembers lying on the bed, chatting like sisters. "She made me feel so comfortable," says Karalee, "despite my feeling so intimated by her."
Today, that mature relationship is in full effect. The two work efficiently together, making sure the kitchen at Lee Lee's is running smoothly and the customers are being taken care of out front. Karalee isn't afraid to go toe-to-toe, making a strong argument against having a television in the small dining room.
"I texted her one word: Mute?" says Lily, to which Karalee quickly responds, "There will never be a TV in here."
Lily laughs and promises she is not done with the subject.
"She might have blonde hair and blue eyes, but she thinks like a Chinese."
Lee's Lee's is the first restaurant these two have opened together, but it counts as 16 in their collective experience. Lily brought her cooks with her from Seattle, where she most recently ran Watercress Bistro. That was an essential part to making this venture happen. Both Lily and Karalee are determined to fill a hole in the market, serving Chinese food that's true to form and not watered down for sensitive Southern palates.
Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen is located at 218 President St. and is open daily at 11 a.m. For more information, call (843) 822-5337 or visit leeleeshotkitchen.com.