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Call Him “Cheffrey”: The Making of Chef Geoffrey Lee

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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Thursday Food introduces the man behind the recently opened Pop Up Poke.

As a young lad growing up in Spanish Town, Geoffrey Lee was surrounded by entrepreneurs. His father, Stephen, was a savvy businessman who owned, among other ventures, Superior Vertical Blinds. His maternal grandfather Ernest Ho was the island's first licensed firearms dealer. Ho's was a family business, and Lee's mother, Laurie, worked for her father.

After graduating from St George's College, Lee pursued a business degree at Florida International University (FIU) then enrolled in the graphic design programme at the Miami International University of Art & Design (née The Art Institute). His creativity resulted in him being offered a plum job as a creative director for a digital marketing agency specialising in digital signage, back when that was a burgeoning industry. Despite being successful, something was drawing him to the culinary world, however. So he enrolled in the chef school at George Brown College in Toronto and took a leap of faith.

There are many notable chefs for whom cooking is their second career. Martha Stewart worked on Wall Street as a stockbroker. Nigella Lawson was the deputy literary editor for The Sunday Times. Gordon Ramsay was gunning for a career as a professional footballer. Anthony Bourdain was a dishwasher, and Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa) was a nuclear budget analyst for the Carter administration. It's fair to say that Jamaican chef Geoffrey Lee is in good company.

Lee's culinary leap landed him in the kitchen of Nyood Restaurant and Lounge, of which Trinibagonian chef Roger Moo-King was a principal. At the time of Lee's tenure at Nyood, it was one of the buzziest restaurants in Toronto. There, Lee met chef Nelson Fernandez, who became both a mentor and advocate. Fernandez saw a spark in the young chef and nurtured it. Lee wasn't afraid to ask questions. That Jamaican chutzpah served him well. The relationship with Fernandez catalysed Lee's career. Fernandez sought Lee out on two other occasions — to work in the kitchens at downtown Brickell's Mare Nostrum and Miami Beach's Byblos. Sadly, Chef Fernandez passed away on April 5 of this year.

Byblos was a turning point in Lee's career. He was a part of the opening team and an integral part of the kitchen's brigade. While there, he was awarded Best Chef 2019 by the Miami New Times readership.

Thursday Food would be remiss to not point out that Lee beat out established chefs and restaurateurs to capture this award. Lee bested Brad Kilgore (Alta, Brava, Kaido); Cindy Hutson (Ortanique, Zest); and Jeremy Ford (Stubborn Seed, and winner of Top Chef Season 13). Lee stands out because he knows how to combine flavours, which has made him a star wherever he cooked. And that bright star led him to trade the world of fine dining for something a bit more rustic.

Lee is now something of a poke master, although he'd never say that about himself. He's far too humble. Lee is the Executive Chef of Mana Poke with three locations in South Florida — Downtown Miami, Ft Lauderdale Beach, and Coral Gables. He is, too, a principal of the recently opened Pop Up Poke that has been taking the Corporate Area by storm. The business side of cooking is what Lee now finds most exciting. He's exploring other concepts in Jamaica. Though based in Miami, he wants to take his experiences and apply them to the local culture; so that Jamaican people can partake of culinary moments happing in food destinations across the world. Lee has achieved first world success, and it's important to him to give back to Jamaica, which has informed and influenced his cooking style.

When asked what advice he'd share with a talented chef looking to open a restaurant concept that would be unique to Jamaica, Lee responded: “Be humble and remove the phrase 'that's not my job' from your vocabulary. Don't have the loudest voice thinking that you know everything. Learn and be a sponge — I've learned so much from my cooks, dishwashers, and servers.”

Lee is skilled in many cooking styles. Caribbean, Japanese, Hawaiian, Kosher, Italian and Mediteranean, to name a few. But what makes an exceptional chef is not just talent, but cooking with passion and soul. And when you taste Lee's food, those are the most prominent flavours.

Photos: Geoffrey Lee/Instagram and Byblos/Instagram