Faith & Food at Soy Bistro
KOREAN ROOTS, AMERICAN SAVVY, AND A GOOD DOSE OF FAITH GIVE US THE STORY OF SOY BISTRO.
As do many stories worth the telling, it begins with a leap of faith. Chris and Hanna Lee sit before a loan officer. It is 2009, the depth of the Great Recession. They share their plans to open a restaurant. Their excitement for cooking. Their joy for learning. Their vision for fusion cuisine: Korean tacos! “It’s just now taking off on the West Coast,” Chris explains. “It hasn’t even hit the East Coast yet. Nashville would be the first to…” The loan officer interjects with a couple of questions. Do you have any business experience? Do you have any collateral? Chris and Hanna admit that they do not. The loan officer laughs. And not just a snicker, but a belly laugh. Chris and Hanna have just made his day.
Yet faith finds ways to forge ahead when the clearest path seems shut. And Chris and Hanna have no lack of faith. Or lack of friends and family, for that matter. They turn to them and borrow. They scrape and scrimp and save. The five course meals Hanna cooks for Chris’ lunch, the ones that make his coworkers so jealous, are whittled down to two. An available space opens in a nondescript strip on Maryland Way in Brentwood, a little rectangle of a storefront next to a dry cleaner’s. But it has owner financing and a restaurant-grade kitchen. Chris and Hanna take the leap. The Soy Bistro has entered the building.
Eight years on, we meet in the morning over plates of Koreaninspired breakfast tacos. They are fragrant, healthy and delicious. Sunlight streams through the windows. On the wall, the chalkboard is an explosion of Hanna’s latest inspirations.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into,” Hanna admits. “Back in 2010, when we started serving our Korean tacos, we wanted to introduce an awareness of kimchi, but weren’t sure if Nashville was ready for anything fermented. So, instead of using actual kimchi, I mixed Korean radishes and Granny Smith apples with my kimchi sauce and used that for the base of the slaw. It went over quite well and validated that we were headed in the right direction.”
“I like to find a balance in my dishes,” Hanna says, “with flavors, textures, and even their effect on the body. Some ingredients heat the body as opposed to cooling it down. Cooking Korean cuisine gave me a great appreciation for flavors.”
“Hanna’s childhood was classical Korean,” Chris points out. “But she has been able to fuse both her Korean palate and her American palate to find her own identity of flavors.” Illustrating this is one of the House Favorites, The Cheesy Skillet, consisting of crispy skillet rice with spicy chicken topped with mozzarella cheese, wasabi and Sriracha.
Another is Hanna’s interpretation of Nashville’s hot chicken (next to the Bibimbap on the menu). “We love food with a history,” Hanna says, “and my version of Nashville hot chicken is like telling the story with my own words. Rather than fry, I first bake, then grill, then pan-sear the chicken in our house spicy oil along with our house spice blend.”
“It’s a little healthier,” Chris adds with a grin. “Plus, it’s gluten-free.”
Also healthy is the couple’s loving relationship: married for eleven years and still going strong. They adore each other. Not that there aren’t challenges, of course. “Being married to your business partner also means being married to twice the accountability,” Chris points out. “Sometimes you ‘get’ to come home to your best fan; sometimes you ‘have to’ go home to your toughest critic. Fortunately, we are best friends first which makes accepting feedback a little bit easier.”
But Chris and Hanna are both quick to admit that their success is not just due to their own tenaciousness and talent; it takes a team. “We would be remiss,” Chris says, “not to thank all the staff and family members that help make Soy Bistro happen and help us in this journey.”
Soy Bistro | 5008 Maryland Way Brentwood, TN 37027 | 615-371-1933. @soybistro