From Banking to Bistro

Sophie Won married a banker - a thoroughly nerdy, financially stable, award-winning one.

So she was shocked when hephoned her at work one day to say he wanted to quit his job and become a cook.

"It was four or five years ago, about a month after he got (a) sales award," said Won, 35, an accountant. "We were still celebrating his success. He called me and he said 'Can I quit?' I said 'No, no. You're doing really well. No.'" Caleb Lee, 40, does nothing by halves. He holds three masters degrees: an MBA, a masters of arts in applied legal science, anda masters in financial engineering (solving process engineering problems with mathematical theory). When the bank mortgage specialist decided he wanted to cook, he first persuaded a friend, owner of the then two-location Vancouver restaurant, Sushi Bella, to allow him to buy a franchise, an expense Lee considers his "education fee" at about the same cost as a masters degree.

Lee's realtor contacts quickly found him a location, Won capitulated, and the couple soon discovered that while Robson Street has international visitors, Davie Street has better local traffic. Sushi Bella's owner, Youngki Kim, provided two trained chefs and a manager, and the couple opened on Davie Street in 2013, just six months after Lee dreamed up the idea.

"We didn't have any background. We weren't chefs. (Caleb) was very talented at tasting great food," Won said, but that was the sum total of his restaurant experience.

Sushi Bella's established French/Japanese fusion menu was an immediate hit, but theircontractor dramatically overcharged the newbies for renovations, persistent conflict among staff caused unanticipated stress, and the couple had no idea how to manage food inventory, or who to call for freezer repair. Won began throwing staff parties to encourage camaraderie, eventually instigating a cash reward for employee staff referrals.

But soon, the indefatigable Lee wanted more.

Within months, he was yearning to learn the secrets of ramen from Japanese master chefs. That Lee didn't speak a word of Japanese was immaterial. He would hire a university student to go to Japan with him and translate full-time - for three months.

"I said no. We had to argue," Won said.

"I sold the car," Lee said.

"We sold our home," Won said. To be fair, selling their home wasn't just for Lee's cooking lessons.

"Because we're bankers, we didn't know that the food business has so many emergencies," Won said. "We had to run in from Coquitlam several times a week. The fuel cost us a lot. I looked at the numbers. We spent about $1,000 a month only for fuel."The couple now live in Won's parent's Yaletown condo.

In Japan, Lee rebranded the sushi restaurant as Japanese Bistro Hatzu.

"We had an option to end the franchise agreement and Caleb was itching to update the menu with his own ideas," Won said.

Food costs have increased significantly in the past three years. Won creates and carefully studies extensive point of sale data. Lee works on process optimization and systemization. They believe customers can't tolerate price increases, and hope increasing lunch volume will be more effective than attempting to further reduce cost.

On weekday evenings,Lee is often behind Bistro Hatzu's sushi counter being trained by his head chef.

Lee's joy at his new profession is contagious. "It's totally different from the office job," he said happily. "You meet people. You talk to people. You provide a service and make food. That's really fun." Lee's next plan is to apply to attendVancouver Community College's culinary program.

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