By the power of Heman Lee | Food | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

By the power of Heman Lee

The chef/co-owner at El Chino and Robie Street Station has super-human work ethic, restaurant chops in this veins and big plans for what’s next.

By the power of Heman Lee
Alexa Cude
"For me, everybody has a different way of cooking and making food," says Lee.
El Chino
2398 Robie Street

Robie Street Station
2394 Robie Street

Heman Lee is a dishwasher, prep cook, grocery-shopper, plumber, handy-person and general problem solver. He’s also the chef and co-owner of Robie Street Station and El Chino Snack Bar.

Lee and his partner Kayleigh Burns opened El Chino, a tiny tequila bar serving Mexican and Chinese food, in the space next to Robie Street Station in 2016. Since then Lee’s been working full-tilt running both kitchens.

Raised in Toronto, Lee grew up working at his dad’s Chinese restaurant, where he served, cooked, packed orders, delivered food and fixed floors. At George Brown College he spent six years completing three different programs. Now 35, he’s worked in banquet halls, take-out joints, a Michelin star restaurant—he’s basically done everything except fast food.

“Honestly still, if I had the opportunity, I’d go work at McDonald’s,” he says. “For me, everybody has a different way of cooking and making food.”

After moving to Nova Scotia to help a friend open a cafe in New Glasgow, Burns and Lee settled on Halifax as the location for their first restaurant. Inspired by travels in California, they thought they’d open a hands-on fresh seafood spot, like The Captain’s Boil that came to Halifax last year. Instead, Burns saw the location and decided all-day breakfast was the way to go for Robie Street Station which opened in 2014. That spontaneity is typical of how the two work together, trying to make everything and anything happen.

Though he comes off as unshakeable, Lee says he was terrified during the opening. “In the back of my mind it was just like, ‘I’m going to fail,’” he recalls. “And I’ve been working 14-plus hours a day to insure that we don’t.”

Having successfully started one restaurant, opening El Chino was less daunting. It helped that the two had already experienced failure, when they had to close Robie Street Express, the cafe that used to occupy El Chino’s space.

Like the seafood restaurant that wasn’t meant to be, El Chino was also inspired by time the duo spent in California, working at Lee’s aunt’s Chinese restaurant. Lots of the kitchen staff there were from Mexico and South America, working together with Chinese people. For staff meals, both groups cooked their own food and shared.

“We’d be eating like tacos and noodles,” Lee says. “It just worked.”
So El Chino was born, and Lee hasn’t stopped since. On days off he catches up on daily life—walking his two Samoyeds, cleaning the house, paying bills, date nights. Cooking takes a back seat, replaced by fast food and instant noodles.
Lee says he learned to work hard from his dad, and was even set to take over the family restaurant in Toronto. Then he moved to Nova Scotia instead.

“We have a good relationship,” he says of his father. “I just didn’t want somebody peering over my shoulders every day and telling me what to do.”

Yet it seems his dad’s hands-on style and high standards are qualities Lee also inherited, and are both a blessing and a curse in the kitchen.“If I see somebody doing something slowly it’s like, ‘I can do this twice as fast as you can, why am I paying you to do this?’” he says. “I take on too much and I try to do everything myself.”

Despite this desire to be in charge, he hopes that someday El Chino will run itself without him—not so he can go on vacation, but so that he can open a Chinese barbecue joint.

“That’s just our lifestyle,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Oh we have free time, let’s fill it up with more work.’” 
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