Rooted in Family Values: Namu Gaji
The beauty of Namu Gaji lies in its symbiotic relationship between individuality and collectivity. Inspired by their mother's restaurant, owners and brothers Dennis, Daniel, and David Lee curated a menu to represent food true to their own American experiences. The brothers moved one by one from Boston to San Francisco, combining their passions at the intersection of food and art. While the brothers have different interests — cooking, mechanical engineering, and music — their close family dynamic led them to invest in a dining experience. The Lee brothers' participation in the farm-to-table movement stimulates a relationship between farmers, chefs, and guests, where preparing and serving high-quality food is simultaneously an experience and an education. Namu Gaji opens up new opportunities for building community while letting the creative juices flow.
By George Ko and Natalie Mark
Photos by George Ko
GR: What was it like growing up in Massachusetts in a restaurant family?
Dennis Lee: We grew up in a predominantly White, Irish-Catholic place. Our parents are immigrants, but they weren't academics; they both worked in the restaurant industry. Restaurants always have opposite hours so our grandmother would take care of us, and we grew up longing for our mother because she would come home really late. They also worked in multiple restaurants, so there were three or four places we grew up.
David Lee: We were lucky because our parents made sure we knew our heritage. My mom forced us to go to Korean school every week. My Korean name is “Hanguk,” which literally means Korea. It’s pretty funny. It wasn’t one of those immigrant stories where we were afraid to bring kimchi to school. A lot of friends would come over and eat Korean food at my house.
GR: When you think of Massachusetts you don’t necessarily think of a big Korean community.
Dennis: Absolutely not. I think the community is bigger now, obviously. A large portion of the Boston population is transient because it’s a big city with hundreds of colleges in the area. We rented out a room in our house to grad students for extra money. And the Korean church in the community was very tight-knit because it was small. They were our extended family. Jeff, one of our partners who lives with us now and runs our street-food operation, came from the same community. Our parents have been friends since we were born. He’s like a brother from another mother.
GR: One thing I noticed while looking through your mother’s restaurant menu is the huge blend of Asian cuisines. It’s not just Korean food, it’s a creative palate. Did growing up in your mother’s restaurant influence your menu?
Dennis: The food at my mom’s restaurant is more of a reflection of the general public's perception and ignorance of specific Asian countries.
David: Growing up, our neighbors called us the “Chinese boys,” and it wasn’t meant to be derogatory. They were just ignorant. In Massachusetts, our mom’s restaurant menu has a Thai food section, a Korean food section, and a sushi section. People want to sit down and order nigiri, California roll, and pad thai.
Dennis: Which makes sense because those are like the entry level Asian food items from different cultures. I guess our identity has evolved from that. We didn’t specifically want to make something eclectic. Since there were other Asian kids in our grade, that influenced us. They might have been Japanese, Chinese, or Cambodian, but we ended up getting grouped together and inadvertently learning about other cultures. It’s a typical American cliché: we’re a result of a melting pot.
David: A lot of American restaurants also incorporate different foods onto their menu, but people don’t assume they’ve swayed away from their heritage because they’re owned by a white face.
Dennis: It’s funny, I was just driving past some sign for a restaurant that said, “Japanese tapas” or something like that. How many people really know what tapas are? It’s become appropriated into a whole new thing. But a lot of ignorant people think it's the original thing, which is absolutely not the case.
David: Like Asian kabob. Kabob already means it’s from the Mediterranean. But Asian kabob?
Dennis: We try to stay away from labeling, which is impossible to do. Somebody is going to label you at one point or another. We just list ingredients on our menu. There’s no flag emblem next to each ingredient. There are food items that are staples across several countries and are called by their origin name. For example, we use doenjang, which is a Korean fermented soybean paste. But everyone calls it “Korean miso.” It’s like Korean miso is an American label drawn from a Japanese food item that is the closest thing to a Korean food item, and somehow that became the name. I think modern culture, but especially American culture, is rich with those mislabelings. There are a lot of funny interesting intersections.
GR: What does the word fusion really mean? Every American restaurant is fusion in some way.
Dennis: It’s a conversation about authenticity that's become a hot topic in the past few decades because people are realizing it doesn’t really mean anything. The way we define authenticity comes with a true expression of a locale or a person.
GR: Farm-to-table is a “new trend” in the states, but if you look at countries like Italy and Japan, that's normal. You guys are cultivating your own farm with Kristyn Leach’s expertise and growing your own produce. How did you meet Kristyn and how did you come up with the idea to educate your diners about the food you’re growing?
Dennis: Kristyn Leach found us through the restaurant and food network, which was great.
David: She just showed up one day with produce for us.
Dennis: We had already been farming on a small plot of land. At the time Country Line Farms had some land they weren’t using, so they let us plant a few crops there.
We have always wanted to do more than just serve people food. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we were young and curious and concerned with problems in the food industry. A restaurant is not unlike a supermarket: people want to sell you packaged and prepared food. The farm-to-table movement naturally spurred better cooking, because it forced chefs and cooks to actually prepare ingredients from their natural state to the plate. It’s a multifaceted thing that is mutually beneficial for our restaurant, and for Kristyn as a farmer and grower. She has a similar approach to farming and tending to the land and the soil. It was a good fit for us and we’re mutually inspired.
We want to impart some of those experiences and values onto our guests. It dovetails nicely with our cuisine. When you come to eat here, you don’t really know what you’re getting just by looking at the menu. Our staff are ambassadors to our guests: they show them what our food is and where the flavors come from, while also showcasing our ingredients and our ideas.
GR: How many people work on the farm?
Dennis: Kristyn, and Will, one other farmer. There are occasionally volunteers or interns. But she’s a very hardworking person and it’s even crazier when you think about how everything is done by hand. She doesn’t use any petroleum inputs. She works from four or five in the morning until the sun goes down. She loves it and it’s a huge part of her exploration of life and herself. The idea behind it was always that approach; it wasn’t a yield-based method where people want to produce certain consistencies or amounts. We’re always experimenting with different crops and methods. Naturally, over the years, things have been mixing together and producing other kinds of mutations.
GR: Did all of you have kitchen experience?
Dennis: Everybody has probably helped out at some level, but I think I was the only one who worked in the kitchen.
GR: David, were you a mini general manager while growing up?
Dennis: He’s still a mini general manager!
David: I’m like the everything guy. As the youngest in the family, I get a lot of orders like, “Get that, do that, pick that up over there!” I’m really good at that.
GR: I wanted to ask you about your music. Did you study sound engineering?
David: I’ve always been into rap. I guess Dennis put me onto it since he’s four years older than me. I had the Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) tape in fourth grade. I didn’t even know what it was, but he had it, so I listened to it. Something about it always made me feel good. I connected with it since growing up in a predominantly White neighborhood made me feel like an outcast.
I got my first turntable in seventh grade. Now, it’s been over 20 years and I’ve been doing my passion every day. It’s something I will continue to do. Food is art, music is art, and music is like a showcase. Every time we have dinner service we’re putting on a show. They go hand-in-hand, and it works out for us because we have a lot of musicians who come here.
GR: Did you have a go-to mixtape you listened to?
David: I loved Mix Master Mike’s mixtapes. There was a D-Styles scratch mixtape with DJ Flare that was my non-stop go to. Of course, DJ Qbert’s Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik. Those were always on rotation. The D-Styles DJ Flare tape was one of the best. But the one I remember the most was the 8-track tape with D-Styles because it was called Hot Sauce in the Dickhole. I still think of that randomly. I’ll be taking a shower and think, “Oh yeah, Hot Sauce in the Dickhole.”
GR: On your website, David is described as a musician and Daniel as an engineer. All three of you guys are centered around this restaurant, but you all have other full-time gigs. It leaves a message to the younger generation that there is an intersection of art and food and computer science.
Dennis: I think anything a person does has some art in it, even just walking down the street. I believe the perception fed to young students or children in compulsory schooling is: “You are here and here are the separate things you can learn.” But everything you experience overlaps; all the experiences you have mix together to make you. We have to create categories to be able to function logistically because language is limited or inadequate.
But if you want to be good at one thing, then it comes with you being good at you. Whether it’s being a musician or chef or an entrepreneur or an engineer, the a-ha moments and the developmental experiences you have in your life always apply to other things you’re doing.
My brothers and I have a strong line of communication because we know each other so well. We live together and share our opinions. We share food, music, ideas, and that’s made me not only a better person, but a better chef. It’s made him a better musician, and it’s made Dan a better manager and engineer.
The idea is to enrich each other’s lives. People get so hung up on keeping things separate, whether it’s relationships, politics, or even the food on their plate. That’s a lot of wasted energy when you’re better off embracing what you have.
GR: Did you all go to schools around Boston?
Dennis: He did!
David: I went to Emerson. Growing up, I always wanted to be on 88.9FM, which was the Boston rap show. Ever since I was little, they always joked that if I wanted to do something, then I made it happen. I went to Emerson and I got on 88.9FM. That was the only reason why I wanted to go to college.
Dennis: Dan went to Michigan, so he was the only one who went away. I commuted to Stonehill College, which is 40 minutes south of Boston.
GR: What brought you to San Francisco?
Dennis: I was the first person to move. We all came out here for a vacation for 10 days with a couple of friends, but, I ended up getting a work opportunity with an urban streetwear company. It was one of David Choe’s first things. I did that for three months and then ended up going back into restaurants. David came out here when we got the contract for the concessions in Golden Gate Park. Dan found a great job opportunity downtown, then a couple years later moved to Facebook, where he's been ever since.
GR: Can you talk about the name of your restaurant?
Dennis: Namu means “tree” or “wood.” Our first restaurant was just called Namu. Gaji means branch; since this is the second location, it’s a literal concept. We pseudo-adhere to some Daoist approaches to health and food. Wood is an element beneficial for me especially, but something we need in our ecosystem.
GR: When you do pop-up ramen shops, is the ramen a take on ramyeon?
Dennis: We’ve done both. We explore traditional techniques but also try to do something personal and regional.
David: Seven years ago, he was doing ramyeon.
David: It was so good, it was like a take on Shin Ramyun.
GR: What stopped?
David: People didn’t want to get it!
GR: You should have served it in LA!
Dennis: We have a noodle place in the works that’s more of a bar with a restaurant concept. To develop that we’ve been doing noodle soup pop-ups. We’ve been in the Outer Sunset Friday and Saturday for the past few months. Even though we’re busy doing a million things, it’s important for us to stay connected with the neighborhoods and people. Pop-ups are great opportunities to drum up interests with people who might not make it all the way out to this restaurant. We also get to check out different neighborhoods, vibes, and crowds at different places. We can break up the geographic monotony of one location.
David: When you do a pop-up you have more freedom to experiment. To answer the ramen/ramyeon question, all our pop-ups are called Namu Noodle. We keep it open to all different kinds of noodles. For example, he’s done Indonesian noodles before.
GR: Are you opening a new restaurant?
David: We’re opening up a new restaurant at 553 Divisadero. It’s at Divis and Hayes in the Panhandle. That’s our second restaurant. We’re shooting to open in two weeks or so.
Dennis: It’s a fast casual concept. It’s called Namu Stonepot and it’s centered around the stone plates we use here for our dolsot (stone pot) bibimbap. The staple is the rice with the prepared vegetables. We have ramen where all the toppings are plated, and then brought to a ripping hot sizzle. You pour the broth at the table, so the noodles are crispy on one side.
We’re also doing a pig head sisig, which we’ve done here before and works really well on stone plate. We’re just trying to promote stone plates by doing something fun and more accessible with it. There are a lot of places trying to crack the bibimbap code.
David: I think we’ve unlocked it!
Dennis: It’s hard because everybody wants it to be a make-your-own. You pick your toppings, you pick the starch, which is good but for us, we wanted to make something more unique with our personal stamp on it. We have access to such great ingredients in San Francisco. We are ingredient-driven and having the farm makes it more easily accessible. This location is a high-traffic area in the Mission, but obviously it’s a small restaurant. It’s a little bit more of a destination. We wanted to be the Panda Express of stone pots.
GR: What’s one of your favorite dishes Dennis has made? Or what is one dish you told him not to put it on the menu?
David: Currently, my favorite dish is the turkey tail. It’s the greatest thing on the planet. It’s a take on adobo made with heritage turkey from BN Ranch, a local farm. It falls off the bone.
Dennis: Turkey tails are pretty big. Chicken tail is one of my favorite parts of the chicken, and obviously a turkey’s is a lot bigger. If I were cooking a dinner party or Thanksgiving for my family, the tail is the part I usually would want to take a bite of. I expanded on that idea and made an adobo treatment. It’s a braised turkey tail with some different pickles and a super intense braising liquid that’s a mix of chicken skins, turkey, and other aromatics. David doesn’t even eat turkey, but he likes turkey tail.
GR: At your restaurant you can taste high-quality food at a very reasonable price. But a lot of chefs go the opposite direction, where they start at a fast-casual place and then go for higher quality to achieve a Michelin star. Is a Michelin the ultimate goal?
Dennis: That is not the ultimate goal.
David: That’s against how we roll. We’re the people’s champ!
Dennis: The ultimate goal is to continue challenging ourselves, and to see where that takes us. We’re building this experience in food by growing and distributing it. I have a lot of ideas to bring a certain quality of food to children and underserved or poorer communities. One of my dreams is to have a restaurant and a garden or farm where you could earn your food by putting in hours in any facet of the production. Then, you could have an opportunity to eat somewhere you know the food is coming from. Being part of the experience in cultivating, growing, and producing is extremely valuable but not in everyone’s communities.
GR: What about for you, David?
David: I’m always growing with the restaurant and expanding my entrepreneurship. Right now, I’ve been focusing a lot on my music. I have a rap group called Golden Age. The term “Golden Age” comes from me and MC DoDat. We think we’re living in the golden age of rap right now. That’s a point of contention, but it’s silly because right now is the golden age of music or anything because of technology. I could make a song on my phone right now, post it on Soundcloud, and anybody can download it. I’m going full speed with that right now. We’re dropping our album on July 23rd.
Dennis: Restaurants are constantly in dialogue, especially in San Francisco, where the cost is so much higher to operate. How can we make this work? How can we continue to bring new flavors? How can we continue to operate and pay livable wages? That’s a really difficult thing to do.
Butt he technology industry in the area leaves capital for opening restaurants. Hella restaurants are opening all the time, but just as many if not more are closing all the time. It’s an exciting and intense place to be in the industry. For now, we’re enjoying that. It has major ups and downs. It has a lot of challenges, which is why we’ve evolved into the fast-casual thing. The bigger project we’re doing is more driven by seeing how we can still serve high-quality food, but not in a traditional model. We are about maintaining integrity in food preparation and human interaction.