Trying to catch up with Peter Ellison or Charles Burgess, co-owners of Lee’s Kitchen in Raleigh, North Carolina, is indeed like trying to secure the location of the President. But success has a cost. And for most, it is time. Luckily Cuisine Noir caught up with Ellison at a rare moment when he wasn’t running the kitchen or talking to reporters or driving his food truck to its next destination. He always seems to be doing several things at once, maybe that is why Lee’s Kitchen is so adept at mixing cuisines for the palate.
For Ellison, mastering several things simultaneously is how he survived. His work ethic comes from years spent working in heating and air by day and at night and weekends selling his meals to whoever would buy.
“I would go to the clubs and the beauty shops and I did this for ten years,” Ellison says in a phone interview. “It taught me a lot. I didn’t know how to run a business.”
Cooking, Fellowship and Starting a Business
In fact, Ellison used to hold gatherings and invite close friends over and cook for them every weekend.
“They used to come to my house and sit and eat,” Ellison recalls who moved to the states at the age of 19 from Westmoreland, a parish in Jamaica. “So I’d cook for you in the middle of the night. It doesn’t feel like work. I love feeding people.”
After several years of cooking, fellowshipping and building his business one person at a time, Lee's Kitchen has expanded to two locations and a food truck. The institutional knowledge Ellison learned, has gelled a bit, and now he can dole out sage advice for future chefs and entrepreneurs.
“First it is presentation,” he says. “You have to carry yourself a certain way. Then, come up with an idea that no one can get anywhere else.”
Enter Lee's Kitchen’s delectable menu with choices that range from traditional Jamaican brown stew, oxtails and curry goat to more southern meals such as fried chicken, baby back ribs, and turkey wings.
The food and the owners have gained a reputation for delicious meals and perfect Southern ambiance and charm. The restaurant is part of the growing national attention that southern food is getting as a fine dining choice.
A Business Built on Second Chances
Raleigh is one of the cities leading the way in culture cuisine. But the owners of Lee's have built their business on helping people who want an opportunity to rise up. For example, several members of Lee's Kitchen staff are former prison inmates.
“I’m not perfect,” Ellison says. “You know you can’t judge someone by something they did in their past life. I don’t have a reason to judge another person.”
All Ellison and his staff go on is the present, and it turns out that the help of his staff working together over the years has finally afforded him a rare gift-free time.
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“I have been thanking them [his staff], because of them I have a little bit of my time back,” he says. “I just try to help people and God rewards.”
It could not have come at a more perfect time. His mother, whom Ellison had not seen in 30 years, has come to Raleigh from Jamaica for a visit, and to meet his family. They have had time to sit and talk. His mom met his kids for the first time and she even got a chance to try his food at the restaurant.
Of course, she loved it, he says. But that wasn’t the point. It was about family, getting together sharing a meal and being at home.
This reunion was a long time coming after working different jobs, and when he opened the restaurant, working crazy hours and sometimes never seeing his family and friends. But his last piece of advice is perhaps his best.
“You have to believe in yourself,” Ellison says. “You don't sway or question. You just stick to it and go on. I do whatever it takes to get it done. If I have to blow up a mattress and sleep at the restaurant. If it's not cashing my paychecks for six months. What would you do for free? If you're going to do it for free, the money is gonna come. If you gonna spend 24/7 on it, you gotta love it. I love doing it. It brings me peace of mind.”
To experience “a taste of Jamaica with a touch of soul,” be sure to visit Lee’s Kitchen’s two convenient locations for Lee's Kitchen on Capital Boulevard and North Raleigh Boulevard. For exact locations and hours, visit http://leeskitchenjamaican.com.