Food & Drink | September 16, 2022 7:46 am

How Chicago Physical Therapist James Lee Became a Chile Oil Evangelist

His in-demand Chilee Oil pays tribute to Chi-town and his nonagenarian grandfather

A jar of Chilee Oil, a Chicago chile oil from James Lee and Sufei Zhang
You've heard of chile oil, now try a jar of Chicago's Chilee Oil.
Chilee Oil

If you’ve somehow managed to get your hands on a jar of Chilee oil, you’re one of the lucky ones! Chicago’s own artisanal, handcrafted chile oil is frequently sold out, so much so that husband-and-wife team James Lee and Sufei Zhang have taken to posting on Instagram whenever a new batch is ready. The frequent unavailability of the condiment isn’t for lack of trying to keep up with demand.

“In a day, I make around 300 jars,” James Lee tells InsideHook. But since his wife is a full-time software engineer and Lee is balancing making chile oil with his full-time physical therapy job, he can only reliably churn out about 600 eight-ounce jars a week. “I’m sort of balancing between my PT practice and then starting up this chile oil side hustle business.”

The side hustle got its start thanks to the couple’s shared love of cooking, and a shared desire, two years ago, to craft “a cheap Christmas gift” for friends. After stumbling upon a chile oil recipe online and tweaking it until it was to their liking, they poured it into jars and spread holiday cheer in a deliciously spicy form.

“One of our friends, their mom was like, ‘So when are you gonna start selling this?’” Lee recalls. The business was born.

The recipe itself blends elements of Lee’s Korean heritage and Zhang’s Chinese background, with a chile oil base seasoned with the five-spice powder, Szechuan peppercorns and star anise Chinese food fans know well. Deep-fried Chinese chiles are blended and mixed into the spicier iteration of the sauce, which is available, like the mild oil, with a base of either vegetable or premium avocado oil.

“Our main Korean influence would be the Korean red pepper flakes,” says Lee. “Most Korean dishes have some form or another of either red pepper flakes or red pepper paste.”

And the Korean inspiration is also evoked in the paste’s very name: Chilee (or Chi-Lee) Oil, which Lee notes can be pronounced “chili” but is correctly pronounced “shy-lee.” “Chi as in Chi-town, Lee as in my last name,” he explains.

It’s the name Lee shares with his grandfather, the nonagenarian who immigrated to Chicago in search of a better life for his family. “I wanted to do it in honor of him, because he’s the whole reason that we came to Chicago,” says Lee, who put his grandfather’s face on the jar in a combined homage to him and to Lao Gan Ma, the brand that popularized this style of chile condiment in the West.

“Every Chinese restaurant and grocery store has [Lao Gan Ma] chile oil,” he says, noting that its packaging sports a grandma’s face. “I wanted to do almost a similar thing: have my grandfather’s face on there.”

Since first launching, Lee and Zhang have upgraded from a home kitchen to the commercial space at nonprofit food and beverage incubator The Hatchery. This transition has allowed Lee to double his output from a mere 150 jars per day, thus getting oil into the hands of even more eager customers. Still, each batch is a labor of love.

It all starts with deep-frying 80 pounds of shallots and 40 pounds of garlic, a day-long endeavor in and of itself that contributes to the natural sweetness of the no-sugar-added sauce. From there, it still takes Lee a whole day to make each 300-jar batch.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how much time and effort it takes to make it,” says Lee. “The production process is probably my biggest hurdle I need to overcome, in terms of being able to make it more efficiently without losing any of the quality of the flavor.”

Crafting the oil is just half the battle. Lee also needs to find time to distribute the jars at local purveyors and bring the product to farmer’s markets and other events, like the recent Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago, as well as think up new iterations of the sauce, specifically a version that’s even spicier the baseline hot oil.

“That one’s good — it has a kick to it, but it doesn’t overwhelm you with spicy,” says Lee. “I think that’s great for a majority of people. But there’s a small pocket that’s saying, ‘You need to make it spicier,’ so I do want to kind of eventually work on something like that.’”

However, the most important fan is, of course, Grandpa Lee.

“He’s definitely a big fan of it,” says the younger Lee, who notes that even his own father — Grandpa Lee’s son — has finally taken a shine to the condiment.

“For whatever reason, he wasn’t a big fan initially,” Lee says of his dad’s reaction. “But then he started eating it with rice, vegetables and some meat, and just mixing it all together, and now literally every day, he just gets a spoonful of chile oil and eats that as well.”

Where to Find Chilee Oil

Chilee Oil can be found online as well as at local purveyors like Urban Market, 88 Marketplace, HarvesTime Foods, Andale Market in Andersonville and Fresh Market Place in Bucktown. You can also find the oil at climbing gym Brooklyn Boulders and, for pizza fans, at Paulie Gee’s in Logan Square. Here, thanks to a special collaboration, a limited-edition pizza pairs rousong pork with pickles, cilantro, red onion and pineapple.

“Then they drizzle the chile oil on top of the mozzarella cheese,” says Lee. “It’s almost like a twist on Hawaiian pizza.”

While the pizza was originally only meant to be on offer until the end of October, its success has led to conversations about keeping it around longer — potentially permanently, according to Lee, “because it’s been so well-received by Chicago.”

How to Eat It

Chilee Oil can be eaten in myriad ways: on eggs, in sandwiches, as a dip for grilled cheese and, according to some fans, even on vanilla ice cream.

Zhang’s go-to breakfast, Lee says, calls for the mild oil drizzled atop a fried egg on avocado toast. As for Lee himself, he opts to use the hotter oil on anything from pizza to sandwiches to grilled fish.

“But a true guilty pleasure,” he says, “is to mix it with some Japanese mayo and use it as a dipping sauce for fried chicken.”