Tai Lee, Texas A&M graduate and professional chef, owns four establishments in College Station and is involved with catering at Texas A&M, community service, and charitable organizations. Each of Chef Tai’s restaurants features high quality food and experience but each provides customers with a different experience.
Chef Tai has won the Reader’s Choice Award (2013), the Open Table Dinner’s Choice Award (2009-2013), the Best of Brazos Award (2008-2013), the Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence (2007-2010), and has been recognized by the Food Network. College Station’s favorite chef is living the dream and we got the chance to talk to him about success, personal experience, his appreciation for his team, and College Station in this exclusive interview.
MW: You have found much success through your four establishments in College Station. Veritas Wine & Bistro, Paolo’s Italian Kitchen, Madden’s Casual Gourmet, and Chef Tai’s Mobile Bistro are each very different styles ranging from America’s favorite food truck to high-class restaurants. Where do you get your inspiration from and what is it like to run so many different establishments
TL: We are very blessed to have a family of restaurants that offer significantly different dining service. It is certainly challenging to manage four different concepts but this does allow us to work with different recipes and create something different that keeps our staff engaged and motivated. We love the fact that we can provide this community with distinctive and flavorful dishes in a consistent manner. Veritas Wine & Bistro being our flagship restaurant, we get to play with the widest spectrum of cuisine. We get inspiration from worldwide cuisine as we consider ourselves a New American Cuisine that encompasses flavor and spices that are found throughout the world. America being the melting pot of the world, we like to offer something familiar with different spice and flavor. After we develop a recipe, we do trickle down some of the most successful and popular dishes to our sister restaurants to offer as special dishes after filtering through each restaurant’s own style.
MW: College Station has a lot of love for you. What is your history with College Station, and how did an accomplished chef like yourself end up opening his businesses in College Station?
TL: I am so grateful to receive so much love and support from this town. I am an Aggie class of 2002 and that root to Texas A&M University has made me return to the town to open up my restaurants. This town is very tightly knit and a wonderful town, and as long as you show love and appreciation for Texas A&M and the Brazos County, this town seems to give you many folds back. So, I return the favor by giving more back through our participation through charity organizations and community service. This is a wonderful cycle of giving and supporting between this community and us.
MW: Your food truck, Chef Tai’s Mobile Bistro, has received love and recognition from highly respected sources such as the Food Network. Where did you get the idea to open this unique food truck that serves Chef Tai quality food at an affordable price?
TL: As a poor student at TAMU, I have experienced what it is like to be on a tight budget, so when I opened high end restaurant, Veritas, I enjoyed our distinguished clientele but always wanted an outlet to share my high quality food at an affordable price without diluting the brand value of our flagship restaurant, Veritas. So having a food truck that has smaller overhead cost was the fun and different approach to provide quality food at a lower price point. Though we are not the absolute cheapest food truck, we do offer high quality ingredients found in our restaurants and they are not highly processed fast food. We are continually finding an innovative way to provide wholesome and healthful quality food throughout all of our restaurants and that is no different in our food truck
MW: What a novel idea and concept! It definitely seems like you hit the jackpot. We want the inside scoop on the man behind the chef jacket. What has the journey of reaching this point in your career been like for you?
TL: It wasn’t always fun, and it is still not easy. Early days as an apprentice making very low pay but learning the trade had its ups and downs. Opening a restaurant and not turning a profit for a few years was extremely difficult to handle financially and personally with burdens of all of our staff and family who looked up to me and had high hopes for me to pull it off. There were many months of not getting myself paid because paying bills and paying our staff came first. However, even through this hardship, we have never compromised on our insistence on quality of service. We persevered and prevailed through the challenges as a team through providing consistent quality in our service.
I am only part of the sum that makes up the success we enjoy today. Our entire team, who have surrounded our community and me and who have believed in me and supported me, have made this particular man behind the chef jacket. Our journey is obviously still in motion and a work in progress. We look forward to continuing our mission of delivering excellence in dining experience to this community for many years to come.
MW: What a journey it has been. All of the sacrifice has led to extraordinary things, and the future of your team is bright. Every professional has a story of the day his or her dreams came true. Was this your dream? When did you know this was the career path you wanted to be on?
TL: I was working at a local restaurant as a college student and though I liked the work, I didn’t actually think about being a chef/owner of my own restaurants until my senior year at TAMU. It was my Strategic Management professor who suggested what if I put my cooking skills and education I have received toward making a successful restaurant business. So, I started looking into this industry with even more curiosity and felt I had certain strength of work ethic and unique culinary background to perhaps make it happen.
My dream of having my own restaurant came to realization in 2006 when my current, and a former customer of mine, Mike and Taffy O’Brien approached me with an idea of opening a wine bar and restaurant in College Station. Ever since our partnership began in 2006, they have allowed me to gain financial and business strength through our own development of Veritas Wine & Bistro to help me grow my business. They truly were the ones who have not only provided me with the fish to eat but also taught me how to catch more.
I have achieved the first part of my dream of having my own restaurants, and now I am focused on maintaining our restaurants while making a steady growth and expansion in business so I can provide upward movements in pay and jobs for those who have worked with me for a long duration. That would be my way of getting them involved in my business and thanking them for building and realizing this dream together.
Chef Tai, an Aggie whose dreams came true, owns Veritas Wine & Bistro, Paolo’s Italian Kitchen, Madden’s Casual Gourmet, and Chef Tai’s Mobile Bistro. Walking into any of these restaurants ensures that you will have the best dining experience possible. With delicious food, flawless service, and an inspirational story there is no doubt Chef Tai Lee has always been destined for greatness.