Hee Sook Lee, a first-generation Korean immigrant known for founding BCD Tofu House, has died at 61, according to the Koreatown Youth and Community Center’s Facebook page. BCD Tofu House began in Los Angeles’ Koreatown as a silken tofu stew restaurant in 1996 before growing to its current 13-unit size with locations in New Jersey, Texas, Southern California and New York City.
Lee is often credited with popularizing Korean dishes like soondubu jjigae, a tofu stew made with curdled soft tofu, vegetables, optional additional protein and gochujang or gochu garu that comes in various levels of spice, in America.
Her recipe itself is a closely guarded secret of the restaurant. According to the company’s website, Lee was inspired by a “passion to spread Korea’s wonderful cuisine around the world.”
Lee emigrated to the U.S. in 1989 searching for a better education for her three sons. She opened her first restaurant in 1996, and her first international locations in Seoul and Tokyo by 1998. Those locations have since closed.
The name BCD Tofu House came from Lee’s mother-in-law’s restaurant in Korea, which was located in a district named Bukchang Dong – incidentally where Lee received her own culinary training. Lee eventually focused on Soon Tofu specifically because of the protein’s health benefits and taste.
“To succeed in anything, you just have to be fanatically devoted to it,” Lee said in 2006, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. “No matter what other people tell you, you shouldn’t look back.”
And devoted she was. Lee trademarked the name BCD Tofu House, beginning the grocery-store line of prepackaged soondubu that is stocked on shelves today, and expanded to 13 units in 24 years.
The Korean community on Twitter mourned Lee and shared their gratitude for what she did for the flavor profile of Korean cuisine in America.
In 2013, employees across eight locations of BCD Tofu House filed a class-action lawsuit for wage theft and other damages, including failure to provide breaks. The lawsuit was settled in 2015 and the 600 current and former employees involved in the suit received a combined $3 million.
Most recently, BCD Tofu House partnered with the Koreatown Youth and Community Center for its Emergency Hot Meal Delivery Program. The initiative is aimed at feeding low-income seniors who were isolated because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lee’s cause of death has not been publicly released, nor has her date of death.
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