A day in the life with chef Mike Lee

M Sushi and M Kokko owner/chef Mike Lee.Juli Leonard

Mike Lee, chef/owner
M Sushi | M Kokko

You legit have not had sushi — real, delicious, sent-from-heaven (or the most palatable exquisite seabed… same diff) — until you have had chef/owner Mike Lee’s M Sushi. A lifelong dream realized, M concentrates solely on providing the true omakase-style dining experience, with a small, purposeful menu chock-full of fresh, delectable sushi and sashimi courses, plus tiradito- and ceviche-inspired dishes, served up with only the best seafood received directly from Japan, Korea and the U.S.

[Related: Does M Sushi live up to expectations? Find out what Greg Cox says.]

Seoul-native Lee brings equally fine fare (and flair!) to proximal M Kokko (which I affectionately call M Chicken, as kokko is Korean slang for chicken). This can’t-miss ramen, rice bowl, wings and more spot serves up the best fried chicken in town (no, really… did you know “the best fried chicken in Durham is Korean,” so says “Bon Appetit” mag, and every primed palate privy to it).

With two very successful sup spots under his belt and two on the 2018 new-resto menu — M Kogi (meaning “meat” in Korean) will offer a tapas-style combo of Korean barbecue and Japanese robatayaki, plus kimchee, fermented veggies and more; and an adjacent M Taco (no translation needed, but expect both traditional and Korean influences) with long-researched, adjusted and tested perfecto housemade tortillas — we had to know how this devoted dad and husband manages it all. (With both restos closed on Sunday and Monday, he is able to fully devote those two days to the fam he adores before returning to that Tuesday to Saturday hustle.)

Here, Lee gives us a snap of a day in the life of a busy husband, dad and restaurateur. (Note: Some edits made for clarity.)

Mike Lee
Inside M Sushi, the look is true to Japanese tradition of rustic austerity with a sushi bar hewn from African bubinga wood running the length of the narrow dining room. // Photo by Juli Leonard

8 a.m.

I usually don’t even have to have my alarm on, as my daughter will wake me up before it’s time. My son (6) goes to school real early, and my wife leaves to drop him off at bus stop by 7 a.m. Then, my daughter (4) will automatically come to my bedroom and try to wake me up, but I usually win at cuddling her and getting her to doze off with me for another hour until around 8 to 8:30 a.m. First thing I do is a nice shower as soon as I wake up. It reboots my brain and I feel refreshed. I usually take a shower at the end of the night, but I always shower in the morning as well. Then I’m pretty quick to get dressed and try to kiss my daughter as much as possible before she goes to school as well by 9 a.m.

9 a.m.

I will have had loaded my Zojirushi coffee thermal with three cups of coffee to last me through midday. This is when I usually go to the bank and do bank things. After the trip to the bank, I go over my “to buy” list on my Evernote app on my phone and go to stores to pick up ingredients and items needed that day. My sous-chef, Mag, will be at the local fish vendor at this time picking up fish. Depending on how much I needed to buy at how many stores, I arrive at M Sushi anywhere between 10 and 11 a.m.

10-11 a.m.

I make my way into the kitchen and sushi bar and say good morning to everyone and check on stations as they are getting ready. Depending on the day, we’ll get anywhere from around four to eight deliveries from local vendors to many seafood docks around the country, as well as directly from Japan and other parts of the world. Our vendors know how picky we are, so we usually don’t have many issues over quality, but I like to make sure as we butcher and prep ingredients each day. I also make my rounds tasting sauces, specific dishes and ingredients … hence no breakfast needed for me. I get plenty of calories from tastings. If I ever get sick of eating my food, then I know I have to improve it. My wife and I are big about eating our own food and making sure we enjoy it. I’m OK if someone doesn’t enjoy the same style or flavors that I do, but I want to make sure it is what I want it to taste like. Not everything is perfect, but we make sure we are always trying to improve and be more consistent.

11:30 a.m.

Both restaurants [M Sushi and M Kokko] open doors, and I make sure the team has everything they need and make last rounds to each station. I then let them handle service while I knock out office duties for the next three to four hours. I always have a timer set on my phone so that I get up every 45 minutes to walk around to see if anyone needs anything and also to say hi to guests. I will jump in at sushi bar or other areas where they need me if we have a rush. I find it much better than sitting three to four hours straight.

Mike Lee
M Kokko has a menu focused on chicken. // Juli Leonard

3-3:30 p.m.

We close after lunch at 2 p.m., and usually everyone is gone by this time. I finalize checking emails and social media replies, etc. This is when I do most of the emailing and answering social media, but I do check it throughout the day to catch the more important ones. I am not one to always be on my phone, but it is on and I check the notifications and filter the majority out for the next day or appropriate time, unless it is urgent. There are times when my staff, vendor or customers have urgent situations, and I want to make sure I am there to help when needed. I have gotten pretty good at taking care of the urgent ones and not lingering my thoughts on ones that can wait till the next day, and don’t feel like I need to systematically unplug myself. I think that is really important for me … to be able to not let thoughts that don’t need your immediate attention or that you can’t change linger in your head.

4 p.m.

This is when my crew starts to come back and set up for evening service. For me, I walk over to YMCA and do a quick workout routine to boost my energy level. It takes no more than 20 to 25 minutes to complete my workout, so I am done, showered and back before we open for dinner service at 5 p.m.

5 p.m.

I am super-refreshed and energized with the workout and am ready for the evening service. I make my rounds again at stations right before we open and enjoy the beautiful view of near perfectly readied stations. I always try to give my staff enough people to work with so that they can enjoy and do things correctly instead of running around wild. They enjoy it, and I enjoy seeing them enjoy their work.

Mike Lee
The house specialty at M Kokko: is “KFC” wings. // Photo by Juli Leonard

9:30 p.m.

The dinner service should be starting to wrap up, and I make my way toward the bar to grab myself a cup of whiskey. I’ll usually end up drinking about half a bottle wrapping things up and checking to see how things went at all the stations. I will usually talk to my head chefs and managers to see if there were any incidents I didn’t catch and go over things that we can improve and fix.

10 p.m.

Normally, I take this time to wrap up any emails and other duties. I also play with ingredients and brainstorm new menu items around this time. … Sometimes the whiskey helps with the creative side of my brain. But about once a week, if the babysitter allows, my wife (who works the hostess station most nights) and I will try to grab a quick bite together as a date during this timeframe. We usually stick to places we can walk to from our restaurant, but that isn’t a bad thing at all as almost all the places in walking distance are awesome. We really do like to rotate through all the places like Mateo, Nana Steak, Pizzeria Toro, Piedmont, Alley Twenty Six, Dashi, Littler and basically all others — as I think there are no bad options nearby.

11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.

I will be wrapping things up and heading back home around this time. The first thing I do when I get home is usually laundry. I have very few pieces of clothing that I rotate frequently, so I do laundry almost daily with my gym clothes and kids’ laundry. After that, I will take a nice hot shower, then plan a dinner with my wife (unless it was the day we ate out). It isn’t uncommon for us to cook as late as 1 a.m. and after. We like to enjoy at least one meal together (and it is usually during this timeframe) and watch a quick food documentary while eating.

2-2:30 a.m.

This is when my wife is usually dozing off on the couch as I finish the rest of the bottle of whatever I was drinking with my meal. I set the alarm and try to sneak in a kiss to the kids — and sleep as fast as I can for the next day.

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