Getting To Know 'Top Chef' Contestant Phillip Frankland Lee

How can one explain the meteoric rise of 28-year-old Chef Phillip Frankland Lee? 

His recipe for such early success seems to be a combination of hard work, tenacity and commitment to his vision. After all, here is a young man who has already been featured in Zagat's 30 Under 30 and was named one of the Best Young Chefs in America by San Pellegrino. As if that weren't enough, he has won some high-profile TV cooking competitions on such series as Chopped, Guy's Grocery Games, and Cutthroat Kitchen.

Lee nostalgically recalls the earliest memories of his love of food from a home video of his 3rd birthday. Part of the dialogue is his father trying to justify to his mother why he bought his young son a chef's knife. He remembers his father's words to this day, "I don't know what else to get him; all he likes to do is cook."

Lee grew up in California's San Fernando Valley as the oldest of six children, to whom his father would delegate the cooking and kitchen chores. This home-based training instilled in him a sense of purpose and a love of cooking at an early age. 

Lee dropped out of high school to be in a band and find a way to pursue his passion for cooking. He attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena but left after three months, feeling that real world experience in the restaurant business would best suit his short-term goals. He subsequently worked his way up from a dishwasher to such positions as a sous chef, including the Michelin-starred Hatfield's in Los Angeles.

Wanting to expand his skills, he moved to Chicago in 2010, where he worked as chef de partie at another Michelin-starred eatery, L20. After completing a stage at Alinea and opening a restaurant, he decided to move back to Los Angeles in 2012. 

Applying his training and experience together with what he saw as a niche, he launched a food delivery service together with his then fiancée Margarita Lee. "It was a 10-course tasting menu," says Lee. "We charged $200 and set up everything in the homes of the customers." 

Even though this unconventional venture was successful, it was a lot of work and he was anxious to open his own restaurant in L.A. This led to a joint venture at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea called Scratch Bar. The owner of the space ran a coffee shop in the morning and let Lee use it for his eatery in the afternoons and evenings. 

If, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, then here is where Lee's tenacity and resourcefulness turned obstacles into creative action. 

After having a falling out with the owner he had to close Scratch Bar but still had active reservations. Rather than disappoint his customers, Lee turned his apartment into a sort of instant pop-up restaurant. Incredibly, his customers came and at its height, he was turning 60 covers (trade term for customers) a night, including out on his patio. "I made everything from scratch and served like it was a sushi bar," he says whimsically. 

Eventually he was able to relocate Scratch Bar to Beverly Hills where it lasted a little less than three years but garnered a loyal following and was rated the 97th-Best Restaurant in U.S. 2015 by Opinionated About Dining.

Scratch Bar is scheduled for a December re-opening in its newest location in Encino on Ventura Blvd. 

Lee is not one to shy away from hard work and at some points in his career he was working almost non-stop seven days a week. Along with that, he had to contend with a health scare. 

Lee discusses this issue frequently because he feels it highlights the importance and power of a proper diet. He had a tumor in his ear that was growing. "It was too large to come out of my ear canal," he says. But as with most of the challenges he faced in his life, Lee and his now wife Margarita decided to take a less-traditional approach. Each day she would prepare a "strict diet" and bring it to the restaurant where he would open up the Tupperware while working and eat whatever she made. Amazingly, after about nine weeks, the tumor had shrunk to manageable size and was able to be removed. 

In September 2014 Lee also opened his second restaurant in Studio City, giving it the unusual name of The Gadarene Swine. The title seems to be as much a part of overcoming his struggles and his contrarian view of how things normally get done in the cooking world.

"It's about living an unconventional lifestyle and going against the grain in a positive manner," he says. Even the tattoos on his chest reveal his philosophy of life. They read, in part, "Wolf and I," meaning "if you want it, go out and get it."

Serving his creative version of vegan-friendly cuisine, Lee features a seven- to 12-course tasting menu along with wine paring  Visually, Lee is more like an artist creating a painting on canvas, using simple vegetables and combining spices like turmeric, ginger, and honey to create flavorful sensations that he says even many meat eaters will love. 

Indeed, even though most of his kitchen staff are not vegetarian, Lee has developed what he calls, "vegetables for meat eaters by meat eaters."

One of his most popular dishes is blackened cauliflower. He starts with a base of cauliflower puree then layers the dish with roasted cauliflower (including colorful stems), lemon and red onions soaked in lime juice, sea salt, and topped off with pistachios. 

When asked what tips he would have for a at-home cook looking to spice up their cooking of vegetables, his response is simple: Olive oil, lemon juice, and salt.  

Lee isn't standing still as he has the ambitious goal of opening 100 restaurants by the time he is 50. 

Recently selected as one of the "Cheftestants" on Bravo's Top Chef Season 13 airing in December 2015, Lee hopes this exposure will help him reach that goal.