Cevin Lee of St. Louis never meant to follow in the footsteps of his parents, who’ve run Asian restaurants for most of his life.
But a health crisis led Lee back to the family’s passion for food, and recently, to open his own restaurant, Garden on Grand, 2245 South Grand Blvd. — next door to his parents’ Hong Kong Express. It was something he once swore he’d never do.
“I saw how difficult it was for them to run a restaurant, the sheer exhaustion from working morning until nighttime, every day,” Lee said.
Now his 8-year-old daughter is growing up in both kitchens. Lee, whose quest to live a pain-free life led him to organic food, is happily introducing her to the family business.
“She likes to cook, especially when we do it together,” Lee said.
Growing up in the kitchen
Lee, 35, grew up playing among bags of rice while his mom and dad rattled the pots and pans. Playing in the kitchen and absorbing the aroma of onions and stir-fried meat are among his earliest memories.
Lee’s parents, Chau and Phan Ly are of Chinese descent but grew up in Vietnam. They came to St. Louis in 1980, the year before their son was born, and worked for free in a relative’s restaurant to learn how to run their own.
Not long after their arrival, they opened their first restaurant, Chinese Express, on DeBaliviere Avenue, near Forest Park.
“I remember just hanging round in the front of the dining room and just being bored, “ Lee said. “Just waiting for customers to come in a talk to me, and tipping me randomly.”
Phan Ly laughed and remembered how her Cevin (pronounced Kevin) was “a very active boy, you know, talkative.”
The Lys opened Hong Kong Express, 2247 S. Grand Blvd., in 1990 and later sold Chinese Express. After graduating from Mehlville High School in 1999, Lee went to California for college to study finance. In his second semester, he began suffering from a mysterious, excruciating back pain.
“It would feel like a knife stabbing through my back,” Lee said.
After moving back home, a doctor diagnosed him with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of spinal arthritis that had moved up to his ribcage and shoulders. He recalls how he and his father hugged and cried when they heard the doctor’s words.
“The doctor said, ‘You’re 18 and all of a sudden you’re 80,” Lee said.
It was a very difficult time for the family, which includes Lee’s younger sister. He was completely bedridden.
“I had to urinate through a red gallon gas tank with a tube coming over my bed,” Lee said.
Over the next few years, anti-inflammatory drugs brought some relief. He gave up favorite foods like pizza and tried every suggestion he found online.
“Like doing raw garlic on an empty stomach just to see if my immune system would react in a different way,” he said.
Then a friend brought him alfalfa, broccoli and radish seeds and showed him how to grow them hydroponically — without soil. For three months, he ate only the sprouts of these plants. And he got better.
“I didn’t feel pain for the first time in 10 years,” he said.
As Lee added tomatoes, zucchini noodles and other organic foods into his diet, he thought: why not open a more upscale restaurant based on healthy food?
It made sense to locate his more upscale restaurant next door to his parents’ place, which does a brisk takeout business. Lee’s a real estate agent and has helped the family buy up most of the block.
He got local award-winning chef Kore Wilbert on board, and two months ago, they opened the Garden.
The menu includes coconut fried rice, organic baby kale salad and Australian lamb, as well as hamburgers and chicken fingers. But sprouts and zucchini noodles? Lee’s still working on getting the zucchini’s texture just right and adding a hydroponic garden on site.
“The things that I really want, that helped me, are not on the menu just yet,” Lee said.
Garden on Grand boasts numerous live plants, exposed brick walls and a huge wood-slab bar and tabletops. Lee got most of the red-maple wood — 10 thick slabs, each 10 feet long — from a Craigslist ad for $2,000.
As her son talks, Phan Lee admires the décor of his restaurant and beams at him from across the table.
“I’m proud of Cevin,” she said.
Next door at Hong Kong Express, his daughter Alana is often in the kitchen, where she likes to chop vegetables — and play with dough.
“Sometimes I make faces with the dough,” Alana said.
Even though she enjoys being in the kitchen, Alana doesn’t see herself running a restaurant when she grows up.
“I don’t really want to be the boss. I just want to cook food,” Alana said. “The boss doesn’t do anything. They’re just on the computer a lot. So I want to be the chef or something.”
Her dad, who is a restaurant boss, and once swore he’d never be in the business, likes the idea of his daughter one day working beside him.
“Yes, three generations,” Lee said. “I can’t wait.”
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL