There exists a certain special place in downtown Champaign: No matter the weather, outside hubbub, nor stresses of life, the dining room of Miga is at peace. Candles alight, modern wood furnishing, and old-school crooners singing softly on the house speakers frame intensely amazing food flowing from Chef Jae Lee’s kitchen. From the sumptuous Sashimi Garden Salad to his amazing miso and sake marinated White Butter Fish, his food is both accessible and very delicious.
Now a true artist and craftsman, as a youngster Jae Lee was accustomed to the amazing noodle dishes and barbecue for which Korea is known, though he says his favorite childhood food memory is fresh Maine lobster. Having moved to Boston with his family when he was just 14 years old, he feasted weekly on the freshest steamed lobster with melted butter. After graduating from culinary school at Newberry College in Boston, he worked at a succession of fine hotels in that area. He learned most of his French cuisine repertoire, essential for any modern chef, at the Four Seasons in downtown Boston. From there he moved back to Korea to work at the W hotel in Seoul, which is quite famous for its excellence in hospitality. He credits the W for his training in Korean fine dining, which definitely influenced his menu at Miga. After several years there he was recruited directly to Champaign to open and run Miga’s kitchen. I recently sat down with Chef Jae Lee to ask a few questions.
Smile Politely: If you could eat dinner tonight at any restaurant in the world, where would you go?
Jae Lee: I love Japanese cuisine. I used to go there [while] living in Korea. There are so many master chefs there. If I had the chance tonight, I would go have Kaiseki cuisine in Tokyo. Japanese fine dining from different artisan master chefs. Tasting courses, all dishes have different character and master touches. I love it.
SP: Do you source many of your ingredients from local IL farms?
Lee: I try to get most of my stuff locally. I search everywhere for the best local and most fresh, especially the meat. We get most of our meat from Old Time [Meat and Deli on S. Neil]. It’s always fresh, and I need that every time.
SP: What is your favorite knife? What type do you use?
Lee: It depends. I don’t care about the brand. I hold it, feel it, and if I like it I buy it. If the knife wants me, I can feel that. In general I like Japanese and German steel, like most chefs.
SP: What is your favorite non-knife kitchen tool?
Lee: If I can cook slow, I like sous vide. If I want to cook fast, I love to play with the pressure cooker. You can cook fast and still keep the flavor and nutrition. They are totally different [techniques] on the outside, but really similar actually.
SP: What is your usual after-work drink?
Lee: I love bubbly wine after work. Better than beer. I like bubbles.
SP: If you only had one meal left in life, what would you eat?
Lee: It’s hard to give an answer, there is so much good food in the world. If I pick one dish, I keep thinking about others. It’s just too hard.
SP: I noticed while dining at Miga that you keep a close eye on the dining room. Why is that?
Lee: I used to work in open kitchens all the time. I wanted Miga to have an open kitchen but it was not possible. I love seeing customers when they taste food, to see how they feel.
SP: Can we expect to see daily or weekly specials from Miga soon?
Lee: If I have a really great idea, I do it the next day. That’s my style. I don’t pick through it too much. I love naturally thinking, like when I exercise or travel and ideas just pop up. Sometimes it gives my staff a really hard time. But when I have nice ideas I want to get them fresh to the customer.
As anyone with a palate who has eaten at Miga can attest, his food is simply outstanding. Jae Lee’s training in French, Korean, and modern American cuisine brings a very unique and creative flair to his food. His dishes are inspired and delicious, the menu as a whole is a work of art. The food and excellent hospitality provided by the staff at Miga have elevated the downtown Champaign dining scene. Do yourself a favor and stop in for some noodles on a rainy day, or one of their delicious Chashu pork buns and a cocktail after work.
Miga is located at 301 N Neil Street, Champaign, and is open Sunday through Thurday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Portrait photo of Jae Lee by Nathaniel Curthoys. All other photos by Sam Logan.