Rock and Rolls Sushi has just wrapped up their first year in business and we’re excited to see what the future brings! Without further ado…
Drooldish: Before you started cooking professionally, before you came a chef, was there something else you thought you wanted to be?
David: No. That’s all I know. When I was little, we always cooked. My grandfather owned a restaurant, Chung Mei, and my parents owned a restaurant, but they were all not in it when I was around. But I remember when I was little, as soon was tall enough, I was trying to help out in the kitchen.
My grandfather opened the first Chinese restaurant in Corpus. I never met him. He died before I was born. But the legacy he left is incredible. Guests of mine have found out that he was my grandfather and they’ve known for me years and they want to re-meet me like, “I want to shake your hand again. Your grandfather was this and that – amazing!” So, there’s a legacy that he left for me, and my father as well, coming down. People still have that much respect for me because of him. The fact that I have these old timers, these regulars of mine, who still to this day tell stories about him 30 years after he passed away… That legacy has found his grandson who never met him. That legacy is what I want to pass on to my kids. I want to have people speak that highly of me to my kids and my grandkids and their kids, saying, “Oh, David Lee, I used to go to his restaurant, I use to do this or that, I used to party with him…” or whatever it might be, but to live that legacy, to leave that footprint… That respect is kind of what I'm going for, where even if you didn’t know me, you’ve heard of me.
Drooldish: That’s cool. So, your grandfather started the restaurant here in Corpus and your family is basically from here.
David: Yeah. He moved from China to Brownsville, and my dad was born there, then he moved here to Corpus when my dad was a couple of years old and he opened Chung Mei and put six kids through college with that restaurant. If you know anyone that has lived here for 30 years, they’ll tell you about it. Everyone loved it.
Drooldish: So, you have deep roots here. Are you hardcore Corpus, or do you ever plan on moving out?
David: I don’t know. I mean, I’ve lived in East Texas. I’ve lived in Galveston. But I like Corpus. I have plans to go to Austin in about a year to help open another Rock and Rolls - construction is going to begin on that pretty soon. I'm not going to work there, but I'm going to help hire and train staff. But I don’t know, man. I'm open to it. I love Corpus, but I'm getting older. I used to be the youngest guy around, because I started really young. All my friends are older but now, I'm getting older and I'm more excited it about every day. Every year, I get older, and I do better. I'm more successful, I’ve got a family now, and I get to see that change and grow. And business is good, so I have to keep doing better and better. So, who knows what’s going to happen?
Drooldish: What things are you passionate about outside of the restaurant?
David: Man, I don’t do that much else. I mean obviously, my family, my daughter now, my dogs – I'm a big softy for dogs. I’ve always worked a lot. I mean I used to work 60 to 70 hours when I was younger. It’s 80 to 90 hours now. I love meeting up with my friends. My friends are like family to me. But I pretty much just breathe, sleep, and eat restaurant. I've always been this way. So, I don’t really have anything else. My girlfriend didn’t know it was going to be like this. When I met her, I was bartending and I didn’t work as much as I work now, but I was in the process of getting my own place opened and I don’t think she understood exactly what that meant.
Drooldish: So then, what was the turning point for you? What made you decide, “I want to go out on my own - I want to be the chef of my own restaurant?”
David: Well, I always had little businesses. I had a lemonade stand and I’d have my neighbors work for me hourly. I've always been like that. Growing up we lived in the country in East Texas and there were like 20 different people there. I was 10 or 11 and I’d take my parents’ van and I picked up all their trash and charge them per bag, depending on the size, and take it to the dumpsters. I also had a knife sharpening business. I was always doing things like that, and I still am. I’ve never settled. Why would I want to work for somebody else? And when you get older and develop more, why make someone else money when you can make yourself money? I’ve always wanted to learn everything I could and be the most valuable employee all my life.
Drooldish: Yes, perspective and learning things from different sides. It’s critical.
David: Well, if you know everything, if you know every job – I mean, I’ve always worked at restaurants and I like to learn. I didn’t go to school, so I’ve learned from wherever I could. You know what I mean? I'm learning from the people around me. I didn’t go to college. I went one semester and I just couldn’t stand it. I’ve been cooking all my life and I couldn’t just start off at basic food prep. Like, “And then today, we’re going to cut on onion and a celery and then this…” At that point in my life, I was working hard, two, sometimes three, different jobs. There’s a lot I could learn if I went to culinary school, because I don’t know everything, but what I know has worked so far.
There are a lot of things you can’t learn in culinary school and I have a couple of friends of mine, they're culinary students and I’ll talk with them. I'm like, “I don’t know why I'm doing it this way, but it works.” Well, one was saying, “Well, Dave doesn’t do things the way we do things.” I'm like, “Yeah, this is how I do it and it’s working.” Sometimes I will say, “Teach me how you do that and teach me why,” and then I learn some things from them.
Drooldish: It’s your first place, you sound really comfortable in it and it sounds like you clearly have a family history in restaurants. When you told your family that you're going to open a restaurant, how did they react?
David: My dad said, “If I can give you one piece of father advice, don’t do it.”
And I said, “Well, I'm doing it. Stop talking, because we’re going to argue.” My grandfather owned Chung Mei and my dad grew up in the restaurant and he saw a life and then he opened up a restaurant with my mom and my uncle Larry. And so my dad worked hard and it consumes you, it does, and it’s hard to have a family in this business. I'm finding that out more so now with having a child who is 12 days old. And so my dad said don’t do it.
Drooldish: And it IS working out for you so far! One thing we’re noticing more and more at restaurants is menu design. It seems to be very important, from the menu items selection down to inventory considerations and pricing. There’s a lot to it. What is your favorite aspect of your menu?
David: People order a bunch of food. A lot of people ask why I don’t serve steaks, and it’s because I don’t want someone to order one item, I want someone to order five different items.
Drooldish: You want them to taste it all?!
David: Yes! When I go to eat with friends, I'm like, “You get this, you that, and you get that and we’re all going to share.” Because I want to try it all! I want people to come and then try a lot of things and luckily, people have been more open-minded than they used to be in trying different dishes that I’ve been creating. People are accepting it. So, I get to make food that I want to make and people at least try it. And my loyal people are willing to try everything!
Drooldish: What’s your favorite menu item?
DavidI like everything. I made the menu. I love it all. I mean my favorite item, the Wagyu Tacos, is killer. I’ve been doing a lot of different sashimi lately. I’ve been doing one with yellow fin tuna. We’re doing our poke sauce, goat cheese, fried garlic, fresh basil and strawberries. I love things that just explode. The flavors take you somewhere. I love our stuffed avocados. I love our – everything on the menu! I don’t have things on there that I don’t like.
Drooldish: So, in the kitchen, working… Are there any quirks about yourself that your staff are always teasing you about?
David: No one can understand what I'm saying because I mumble, I talk fast and I'm talking while I'm working. So, I'm talking and – Yeah, no one can understand what I'm saying.
Drooldish: I like it. So, you're in there with them. You’re in the kitchen; you're not one of those guys that stands by and points?
David: No. I mean at the end of the night, if it slows down, I will come out and talk to my guests. I like to meet them, talk to them, buy them cool drinks, and entertain a little.
Drooldish: Actually, whenever we bring up your restaurant to people, they almost always talk about, “Yeah man, when we were there, the chef was walking around,” and we’re like, “Yeah, that’s David. He’s really cool.”
David: Yeah, but if I'm too busy, I don’t get to walk around. But my bartender, Bob, he knows everyone’s name. I don’t know how he does it. He knows everyone’s name and everyone’s drink. I know people’s faces and favorite food, but I don’t remember everyone’s name. And he knows them right off the bat – we love our regulars, we love our guests coming back because they support us and we have a blast with them. We like that fun, so it’s actually family. So, as often as I can, when it’s not busy, I’ll hop out and talk to everybody, but for the most part, I'm in the kitchen.
Drooldish: So, congratulations on wrapping up your first year in business!
David: Thank you.
Drooldish: I’m sure it’s very intense. Anyone that knows the business knows that, what is it like 60% of businesses fail in the first year? I mean, it’s hard. Plenty of businesses fail and they don’t even have inventory that goes bad. It’s very challenging for restaurants. So, you're clearly passionate about it. You’re putting in the hours and the time and the food quality is always killer.
David: I'm particular about it. Now, I tell all my employees, especially when it’s raw, and they ask, “Do you think this is still good?” I’m like, “Throw it away – if you have to ask me if that thing is still good, throw it away.” Because that means it’s questionable, it’s raw… I’d much rather lose a couple of dollars than serve food that isn’t amazing and fresh.
Drooldish: Okay. Last question. What would your last meal be, death row style, one last dish before you die?
David: I would definitely have foie gras, poached pear, a little French toast - but not sweet - on the side. I would probably do a Bone-in Rib-Eye or a Bone-In Fillet with some bone marrow butter on top, maybe some – I don’t know. I could just keep talking about that. I love crab. I love Dungeness crab, King crab. I mean honestly, there’s nothing that pleases me more than an awesome steak with a glass of red wine and maybe a little surf on the side… or grilled shrimp or a lobster tail…
Drooldish: So, what would be your ideal bottle of wine that have with that steak?
David: There’s a lot of wine that I haven’t had. I mean my favorite, I love Insignia, I love PlumpJack, I love – I mean all the good and expensive stuff! I want a big bold wine with that steak. It’s unexplainable. A real good, fatty steak. A real prime… bone-in.