Serving up joy at the Brewery Farmers’ Market

Illustration: Kat Frick Miller

EungSub Lee came to Halifax to escape the career rat race — now he’s building a thriving business and sharing Korean flavours with his loyal diners

The gentle scent of simmering pork with hints of garlic and kimchi fills the kitchen of the Brewery Farmers’ Market every Friday evening, as EungSub Lee prepares for the next morning’s market.

Lee describes his menu at Gama by Lee as Seoul-style Korean food: rooted in Korean flavours and techniques, but as with the cuisine of the megalopolis, he includes the influences from China, Japan, and Taiwan, gathered during his travels.

On the menu every week is his braised pork belly, a Korean dish, but Lee includes star anise in his sauce “because it is more delicious, but it is definitely not Korean style.” Mandu (Korean-style dumplings) are among his staples. On occasion, you’ll also find Japanese ubu, an inari sushi dish, filled with kimchi and scrambled eggs or beef bulgogi.

Five years ago, when Lee immigrated to Nova Scotia, he wasn’t planning on going into the food business.

He decided to leave Korea because he wanted to change careers and a mid-life career switch in South Korea is considered, as he puts it, “some kind of crazy thing.”

For 10 years in South Korea, Lee worked in the game design industry, often with long periods of “crunch time,” working 16-hour days. He wanted to find a job where he could work for himself, not spend hours writing reports for managers.

First, Lee thought he might take up carpentry because he had the desire to create something. However, after seeing the tough workload and long summer hours of carpenter friends, he decided it was too similar to the career he was trying to escape.

After stumbling upon the Cabbage Patch Kimchi stall at the Seaport Market, Lee convinced the owner, Jessie Palmer, to hire him part-time to tend the stall during the quieter Sunday markets.

In time, he started helping in the kitchen, preparing kimchi, washing jars, and bottling. This experience gave him an opportunity to learn about the farmers market community, the English names for ingredients, and the structure of a Canadian commercial kitchen. A few days a week, he also worked as a delivery driver for Skip the Dishes, using the small interactions with customers to practise his English.

“That kind of little chance to make conversation with people at the doorstep and at the counter helped me a lot,” he recalls. “Because I cannot make long conversation with other people because I am afraid to make mistakes. Small conversations, I can memorize some kind of sentence, I do that like the actor. I gain confidence and I gain experience.”

Lee applied for a space at the Brewery Farmers’ Market in the winter of 2020 and opened shop offering mandu delivery and meals through the market Side Door Supper Club until the market opened again.

Despite a tricky first year, he has cultivated a dedicated following at the Saturday morning markets and for his mandu, available in shops across the city. While in his previous career he would work for four years on one project, now he loves that he can make a meal in four hours and immediately see the response from customers.

“That is why I love the Brewery Market,” he says. “I can see the smile from the customers and hear the happiness from their face and from their voices. That’s one of the reasons I decided to become a business owner.”

Lee is now embarking on his next project, opening a small eatery in Halifax to allow people to enjoy his food throughout the week. After searching for over a year, he found a home for his new venture, Café Suda, opening in February at 5520 Almon St. (formerly Hold Fast Café).

He continues to prepare his foods from his kitchen in the Brewery Market but looks forward to expanding his menu in the new location, offering coffee, while introducing Asian baked treats alongside his signature dumplings.

A dream in the offing is to open a food truck to service areas of the city that are considered food deserts, a concept he only learned of after moving to Canada.

“In South Korea you can walk everywhere,” he says. “In Canada if you don’t have a car, it is really hard to get proper food.”

Halifax reminds Lee of his hometown, Busan, which is also home to a large port, a ship-building industry, and tourists visiting the coastal community.

But Halifax’s smaller scale has lasting appeal: “I won’t leave, I will stay here.”

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