To celebrate 10 years of Parrotdog, The Spinoff is partnering with the brewery to share the stories of New Zealanders doing great things. In the first series of Birdseye View, we’re interviewing 10 interesting Aucklanders about their relationship with the city and how it shapes their lives.
In part three, Minkyu (Paul) Lee, owner and manager of Ponsonby restaurant Ockhee, tells Matthew McAuley how his motorbike helped him through the stress of 2021.
On a deck well-shaded by West Auckland natives, Minkyu Lee takes a moment. To those who’ve met him over the past couple of years, he’s Paulee: the always-stylish, always-smiling face of the young-but-acclaimed central Auckland restaurant Ockhee. But while he’s characteristically dapper on this late-spring morning, (carpenter jeans, a bandana-print chore coat and sapphire-blue-lensed Buddy Holly horn rims) the version of Lee that sits next to me is noticeably more reserved than the one I’ve come to know as a patron. Leaning gently forward, he exhales slowly.
“I always felt like, if you’re an entrepreneur you should be able to endure the hard times as well as the good. But when the hard times hit and there’s nothing you can do about it, with all of your ability…it just drives you mad, bro.”
For Lee, the last 18 months have held plenty of both. The mid-2020 launch of Ockhee and the near-immediate acclaim the restaurant received saw this relative unknown on Auckland’s food scene suddenly become one of its brightest stars. Sure, his was a face you’d know if you were paying attention – he’d worked front of house at buzzed-about spots including Parnell’s Simon and Lee, Newmarket’s Camper Coffee and Mr T’s in Onehunga – but now he was in charge of his own restaurant. And Ockhee was quickly earning plaudits like “life-changing”.
The highest praise yet would come in mid-2021, with Metro Magazine naming Ockhee in its top 50 Auckland restaurants and as a finalist for best newcomer. Lee himself was named the Auckland restaurant personality of the year. In explaining its decision, Metro nodded especially to his determined attention to detail, describing the self-acknowledged “perfectionist” as someone who “works really bloody hard, in a way that goes beyond the usual parameters of a restaurant”.
Those words capture Lee’s prowess on the dining room floor – his always-on megawatt warmth, his effortless vibe (and playlist) curation, his uncannily inoffensive ability to get you to stop nursing that tap-poured pet nat so he can turn over your table before the kitchen takes its last dockets. But in reality his work and his care go even deeper still.
Ockhee is his passion, a long-time labour of love planned and crafted in careful collaboration with his parter Lisa, who helms the restaurant’s kitchen. It’s their attempt at bringing authentic Korean hospitality to Auckland, not only in the impossibly sticky chicken wings (that come with necessary plastic gloves), impossibly fresh seaweed-noodle salads and impossibly moreish soups, stews and sides that make up its menu, but in the whole feel of the place. As Lee puts it, when people dine at Ockhee, “I want it to feel like I’ve invited them into my home.”
The desire to make Ockhee more than just a place to eat and drink – as well as the difficulty finding a reasonably priced commercial lease in Auckland – meant the search for that home was a long, sometimes frustrating one. The pair had been scouting potential locations since 2018 (and making broader plans since 2015), but it wasn’t until the end of 2019 that they found a spot that suited their vision and budget.
That spot – a tiny and otherwise unassuming noodle bar on a mildly unfashionable block of one of Auckland’s most pointedly fashionable streets – needed a lot of work. But this was their dream, and they were prepared to do whatever was required to realise it. The pair returned to Korea in January of 2020 to visit family, to seek inspiration and to source the exact cutlery, crockery and kitchen equipment needed to get this thing moving. Everything was finally falling into place, until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
“We took over the lease in March, and then yeah. Covid hit.”
Looking back on those days now, Lee is somewhat philosophical. While the country’s first round of lockdowns starting the very same week that their demolition work began meant the restaurant’s opening was pushed back by more than two months. And while that caused the couple huge financial and mental stress at the time, the bad times would soon be outweighed by the enormous rush of building and running a bustling, beloved neighbourhood spot from the ground up.
The mini lockdowns of later in 2020 and earlier this year were disruptive, but not to the point of derailment. And for a blissful 12 months Ockhee flourished and punters crowded into the small dining room to eat Lisa’s brilliant food and experience Paul’s special service. Lee had dreamed of creating a place for “young, cool cats” to eat great food and enjoy unparalleled hospitality, and if he hadn’t already achieved that, he was well on his way. But when the arrival of the delta variant saw the Auckland region move into its longest ever period of lockdown, things got exponentially more difficult.
“[At the time], I thought last year’s long lockdown was going to be the hardest ever. But this one was really, really hard, especially financially. We do this for passion and for our happiness, to share our joy, but when the numbers hit you, bro … I was just always looking at the numbers.”
The numbers didn’t look good. Forced to stop trading, Ockhee was burning through whatever cash reserves they’d built in the months prior. And Lee, desperately concerned not only for the future of his business but also for the livelihoods of his staff should it fail, was burning out. He needed respite; a way to force-close the negative thought spirals and take his mind away from its fast-multiplying anxieties. He found it on a bike.
That’s why Lee and I find ourselves sitting beneath the bush on the deck not far from the deep West Auckland suburb of Tītīrangi. The city is still in level three lockdown, just a few days away from the transition into the traffic light system, but we’re well past the preternatural peace and quiet of the shelter-in-place days of early lockdown. It’s just as well really – if the apocryphal tales of exploding fauna populations in those reduced-emission months held any truth, the mica-purple, flame-adorned 1986 Harley Sportster on which Lee arrived this morning would’ve certainly gone some way to scaring any birdlife with new bravery back whence it came.
Seen from above, this part of town presents as a blue-green patchwork quilt of old-growth kauri, mid-century outer-suburb boltholes and – as in most all parts of the city – an ever-increasing count of ambitious new developments. And while it’s a decent distance from his home in Takapuna and from the Ponsonby Road restaurant where he spends the bulk of his waking hours, Lee is at home on the winding roads that weave grey sashiko-thread dashes through the hills of the Waitakere ranges.
“Especially since lockdown [started], I think I might have actually gone really crazy if I didn’t have the bike. I’ve been taking a day off once a week, every week, and just riding for three or four hours out west – Huia, Karekare, Piha, Muriwai, Bethells. It’s been a blessing, man.”
As undulating topography gently makes way to cragged coastline and imposing surf, the west coast of Tāmaki Makaurau is world-renowned among surfers and sightseers alike. But while his destinations are breathtaking, it’s in the journey that Lee finds his deepest joy.
“When I’m on the road, riding in the wind, that’s the only moment I don’t think about work. Because my brain is, like, always on Ockhee. But when you’re ripping corners, you’ve got to concentrate on that. Those are the only moments that I don’t have to think.”
His love for riding had humble origins. It began in 2012 when, having recently arrived back in Auckland (Lee attended high school here, before returning to Korea to complete his compulsory military service), one of four concurrent part time jobs saw him delivering food on a scooter around the CBD. He eventually gave that one up – as well as the sidelines in stock trading and nightclub cleaning – but the itch stayed with him.
He saved to buy a 125cc cafe racer, a classically styled two-wheeler with a much smaller engine than the Harley he’s riding today (loaned over lockdown by a generous friend) but with more than enough toe to get him where he needed to go. It was mostly a means for commuting and occasional short-distance exploration, but it also served as the facilitator for a pivotal moment in his relationship with Lisa.
The pair had first met back in 2012, classmates in a business and hospitality diploma course at a central Auckland academy. They’d hit it off quickly, and have been together since. Things were going well for the pair, but after a few years of working retail and hospitality jobs around town, Lee was beginning to feel restless.
“As soon as I got my residency – it was April in 2015 – I said to Lisa, ‘We’re in our late 20s, and if we never do this now, we’ll never get to do it. Do you want to pack up everything in Auckland, go down to the South Island and just travel for three months?’ And she was like, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s do it.’”
They’d spent that winter traversing Te Wai Pounamu on Lee’s motorbike, working in wineries and ripping roads across the motu. Lee laughs as he recalls the borderline recklessness of undertaking the trip during the coldest part of the year – ”We started in May, bro. But we were young, we didn’t give a fuck.” – but even as their hands and faces froze during their long hauls, their mauri was replenished.
And just as riding helped Lee to see parts of the remote corners of the country, it also helped him to find community in his adopted home.
“When I got into bikes, I ended up meeting heaps of good people. Those are still some of my best mates, my best homies. And a bunch of them helped me out a lot with building Ockhee as well.”
Lee speaks often and enthusiastically about his homies; the people who he rides with, eats with, laughs with, dances with. He’s quick to shout out the roles that they played in the genesis of the restaurant – “All the builders, the sparkies, the plumbers, the signwriter, the guys who did the branding – they’re all my mates.” He speaks effusively about the inspiration he gets from seeing those around him succeed on their own terms.
And while he admits to harbouring dreams of a hybrid food-and-retail space inspired by the polymathic efforts of entrepreneurs like Japan’s legendary Nigo, Lee isn’t sure he wants to be a restaurant owner forever. You get the feeling that he’ll go wherever he feels he’ll find his people – the “different, niche, quirky and trendsetting” crew he met before starting Ockhee, and who now typify its clientele.
But for the moment he’s content to play the long game. The year has been tough, and he’s anticipating Ockhee’s return to normal will be a relatively slow, potentially painful one, but the reward remains worth the effort.
“It’s hard work, but seeing people really enjoying it, seeing all the happy faces … the satisfaction that gives me, that it gives all of us, it’s just a huge joy. I truly believe that what goes around comes around, and with the way we’ve been supported by all of our customers and friends… I’m just so grateful.”
The next time I see Lee, it’s high noon on a clear Wednesday in December at his restaurant. A couple of weeks have passed since our kōrero on that Titirangi deck, and with Auckland now in the traffic light system, Ockhee’s doors are officially open to customers for the first time since August. Outside, Auckland’s oppressive summer humidity has well and truly arrived, but a step through the restaurant’s doors is a step into a temporary idyll: the cooled air alive with the smell of fresh Korean kai and with a classically Ockhee soundtrack of vibey 70s and 80s funk cuts.
The lunch trade is steady, back-in-the-office cityside workers and outer suburb loyalists taking the long-awaited opportunity to sit, chat and share chicken wings at the restaurant’s dark wood tables. And Lee, his loaned Harley still taking pride of place outside the front door, looks like he never left. He’s constantly kinetic, his sixth sense attuned wholly to predicting and meeting the needs of those who’ve come to see what all the fuss is about.
I watch Lee in action while I eat perfectly seasoned, perfectly crispy fried matchsticks of courgette and a gochujang pork dubbap – a kind of donburi-type rice/meat/vege dish, dressed in an earthy, sharply spicy bean paste – and, like basically every one of Lisa’s dishes I’ve enjoyed in the past, they’re both pretty much flawless.
It’s clear in talking to Lee that he finds his greatest joy and peace with his legs on either side of a rumbling engine. But to watch him at work on the floor at Ockhee, it’s clear too that the joy he finds on the road is transmuted here. Being able to explore – ripping hills and tearing through tight bends, teeth gritted and knuckles white – provides the necessary chaos to offset the intense order that comes with running this restaurant. Having that outlet is what allows him to put so much of himself into Ockhee; he finds his solitary happiness on the road, so that he can devote his entire self to sharing that same happiness with every single person who walks through his doors.
You’d understand if he was exhausted, especially after being out of this particular saddle for so long. On my way out, I steal a moment to ask him how it feels, after all of the stress and disruption of the past three months, to be back on the floor of his restaurant. “It feels good, bro,” his face serious for barely a moment before cracking into his trademark irrepressible, ears-wide smile.
“It feels really good.”