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Hee-sook Lee, who built an empire with BCD Tofu House chain, dies at 61

Hee-sook Lee outside BCD Tofu House on Vermont Avenue in Koreatown.
Hee-sook Lee outside BCD Tofu House on Vermont Avenue in Koreatown.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

Hee-sook Lee had tenacity. She also had a secret recipe. Together that was enough for her to build a tofu empire.

Lee, who founded the popular BCD Tofu House restaurant chain and helped raise the global profile of Korean cuisine, died July 18 at age 61, according to the Korea Times.

She had been fighting ovarian cancer the past five years, and her illness had recently worsened, the newspaper reported. She is survived by her husband, Tae-ro Lee, and three sons, the Hankyoreh reported.

Lee opened the first BCD Tofu House on Vermont Avenue in Koreatown in 1996 with limited restaurant experience but plenty of confidence and a singular focus on a singular dish: soondubu jjigae, silken hunks of tofu in bubbling spicy broth. The restaurant’s name was short for Buk Chang Dong, a neighborhood in Seoul where her in-laws once ran a restaurant.

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Lee treated a common dish with uncommon dedication. In the kitchen, she cooked up a plan and a secret recipe for a soup base that she refused to share with anyone, including her husband, Lee told The Times in 2008.

“To succeed in anything, you just have to be fanatically devoted to it,” Lee said at a South Korean government-sponsored convention for overseas business owners in 2006. “No matter what other people tell you, you shouldn’t look back.”

There were other soondubu restaurants before BCD but few made the dish as accessible and available. None have been as successful.

BCD Tofu House on Wilshire Boulevard.
BCD Tofu House on Wilshire Boulevard.
(Lucas Kwan Peterson / Los Angeles Times)
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Within two years of her first restaurant, Lee opened two more in Southern California. Today, there are 13 restaurants in the BCD Tofu House chain in the United States, largely concentrated in Los Angeles and Orange counties with locations in New York, New Jersey and Dallas. The transpacific empire grew to include outposts in Seattle, South Korea and Tokyo, and its reach remains global with a line of take-home soondubu starter packs through House Foods.

“[She] was an amazing entrepreneur and community leader who impacted the lives of many,” wrote friend and Orange County supervisor Michelle Steel on Facebook. “Her brand and legacy will continue to live on, and she will always be an inspiration to myself and many others.”

Lee, who considered herself a “diplomat of sorts” for Korean food, also was dedicated to feeding hungry mouths around the world.

She served as president of the Global Children Foundation, a nonprofit organization started by Korean American mothers that provides relief to children and families.

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During the COVID-19 outbreak, Lee partnered with the Koreatown Youth and Community Center to feed low-income seniors who were isolated by the pandemic. The center helped spread the news of her death online.

“Lee — as a first-generation immigrant—brought her delicious recipes and healthful approach to countless satiated diners,” the center wrote in a tribute. “Please support this Koreatown empire and honor Ms. Lee when you’re scraping your jigae bowl clean.”

At the original Wilshire Boulevard BCD Tofu House location on Tuesday afternoon, the patio was mostly full of diners at socially distanced tables, picking at banchan and slurping on bubbling, glowing tureens of stew. Two check-in areas are set up outside the restaurant — one for takeout and another for dine-in. A manager took diners’ temperatures and offered squirts of hand sanitizer.

A large white tent has been set up in the ample parking lot to accommodate further outdoor dining. BCD is known as a go-to after-hours location following a night on the town. While those days may be temporarily over, it still has outdoor dining until 2 a.m., and takeout is available 24 hours a day.

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Food is prepared in the kitchen of the Wilshire Boulevard BCD Tofu House.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

Kyung-chun Park, 60, was eating soondubu alone at a small table under the tent.

“I live in Torrance, but I drive 30, 40 minutes here,” he said. Park said that BCD was particularly popular with non-Koreans and was a great place to introduce people to Korean dishes and flavors. “She made Koreatown and this soondubu very well and very famous,” he said.

“I even heard that they opened a BCD Tofu House in Korea too,” Park said, noting that, perhaps counterintuitively, Lee’s success flowed from the U.S. back to her native Korea. “Even though soondubu originally came from Korea!”

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Geral Lopez, a mortgage consultant who works nearby, said he frequently brings his clients to BCD. “The food is delicious, and I am really sorry to hear that the owner passed away,” Lopez wrote in an email. “BCD has been a huge part of this business community.”

Jennifer Tai, a recent transplant from San Francisco, appreciated the restaurant’s late hours. “It’s a 24-hour restaurant, which I thought was amazing because you don’t really have a lot of those anymore,” she said. The focus of BCD, in her opinion, was on “serving the community: people that work late, people that need to eat when they’re hungry.”

Kyoosop Cho, a 30-year L.A. resident, was eating lunch with his wife, Jung. Cho was digging into the familiar BCD setup — a boiling-hot bowl of soondubu, a stoneware bowl of rice, a small croaker fish and several assorted banchan.

“People say the owner was a person who achieved the American dream,” he said.

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