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Central Standard

From The Northland To The World: Bonjwing Lee And Bonyen Lee-Gilmore

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Even though they lead different lives, siblings Bonyen Lee-Gilmore (L) and Bonjwing Lee bond over food.

He’s an internationally-known food writer and photographer, an attorney and a former Congressional aide to Sam Brownback.

She’s the communications director at Planned Parenthood Great Plains, and her career has also included time as a competitive figure skater and as a local TV news anchor.

And they also happen to be siblings.

Bonjwing Lee, author of The Ulterior Epicure blog, and his sister, Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, grew up in the Northland. Their parents came to the United States from Taiwan for grad school before they were born.

From lawyer to food blogger

Their mother worked for TWA, and for Bonjwing, his love of food stemmed from their family vacations around the world and the United States.

“Our parents very much wanted us to know that the world wasn’t like what we knew here in the United States because they’re immigrants,” he told guest host Brian Ellison on KCUR’s Central Standard.

“So everywhere we went, they sort of insisted and tried to expose us to what the locals ate. I loved that.”

Bonjwing, who also occasionally appears as one of KCUR’s Food Critics, recalls living a dual life, with Chinese food, chopsticks and speaking Mandarin at home, and American food and forks at school.

They’d go to their grandparents’ house after school, where they were exposed to their cooking and general outlook, he said.

Credit Luke X. Martin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Bonjwing Lee

“My grandparents were great cooks. My mom would admit that she’s not the most patient and therefore not a great cook,” Bonjwing said. "We were used to different flavors and different ingredients from what we would be exposed to outside of our home."

Such as with school lunches.

“Sometimes my parents, my mother, would pack lunches, and they would be like a tea egg with, like, a soy sauce chicken drumstick or something,” he added.

“Octopus,” Bonyen interjected.

“You’d open it at school and everyone would look at you like, what is that? It’s a very typical story … but it actually happened,” he said.

He studied radio, television and film at Northwestern University. After college, he moved to Los Angeles to live with Bonyen, who, at 16, moved there to train for her skating career.

Los Angeles wasn’t for him, though, so after two years, he moved to Washington, DC, to be a general aide to then-U.S. Senator Sam Brownback.

Most senators have a staff member drive them around, and Bonjwing did that for Brownback, who he described as “very kind, very honest, principled and patient.”

While living in DC, he realized that he didn’t want to work in government. He left DC for law school, where, as a creative outlet, he started writing The Ulterior Epicure anonymously. It combined all of his interests: food, writing, photography and travel.

At first, he wrote about and photographed his own dining experiences at restaurants. This was around 2004, way before smartphones and back when people weren’t taking pictures of their food. Among his early readers were chefs, who, in those pre-“celebrity chef” days, weren’t traveling as much and wanted to see what other kitchens were doing.

According to Bonjwing, The Ulterior Epicure became “sort of a cult blog” that’s mostly viewed by people in the restaurant industry and those who are really into food.

After seven years of writing anonymously (and getting stalkers, negative attention and death threats), he took the mask off. With that, the mission of his blog has changed a bit.

Being anonymous gave him the freedom to write openly and freely. Now, he works a lot with chefs, he said, and his blog has gone from one-off writings about a particular experience to a broader commentary on the restaurant industry.

His life includes traveling to different countries and eating in some of the best restaurants in the world. He’s been making his living as a full-time photographer for the past several years, taking photos for chefs and magazines. He’s also worked on a few cookbooks.

“I pinch myself, I can’t believe the experience I have. I wake up in different countries some weeks and it’s incredible,” he said.

From skating to activism

For Bonyen, who is six years younger than Bonjwing, her childhood experience was “totally different,” she said.

Growing up as an Asian-American in KC was something she always thought about, whereas it didn’t affect Bonjwing as much, she said.

“I think when you’re a girl, you grow up with Barbie dolls and Disney princesses, and you have this image of what it is like to be an American girl,” she said.

“And I wasn’t an American girl; I lived in two worlds all the time and I was always very conscious of that immigrant Chinese family at home while trying to be more of an American girl outside of the house.”

Her parents were very realistic about this, she said, and never sugarcoated anything.

“They were always reminding me that ‘yes, you are different and you’re always going to have to work harder; you’re always going to have to do better because you are not a white American’ … this is the way it is; you need to figure it out,” she said.

Credit Luke X. Martin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Bonyen Lee-Gilmore

Part of figuring it out included living away from home at a young age. She started skating when she was nine, and she started traveling to Colorado Springs to train when she was 12. Her parents tried to travel with her when they could, but they also had to take care of her two brothers at home.

When she was 16, she moved to Los Angeles to train. Bonjwing moved in with her and became her surrogate dad for a couple of years — a strict one, too, she said.

She was recruited to skate for Taiwan (she’s a dual citizen), which, she said, was a great opportunity to travel internationally and compete on a bigger stage. She was on the roster for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

But after a year of training for Taiwan, she decided she didn’t want to miss any more college; she wanted to live more of a normal life. She left skating in 2002 and came back to KC to attended the Metropolitan Community College at Maple Woods.

After a year and a half there, she transferred to the journalism school at Mizzou; she had fallen in love with its broadcast journalism program.

She got a job right out of college at a station in Rochester, New York. She hadn’t planned on coming home to KC, but during a visit, her agent suggested that she meet with some local news directors. From those meetings, KCTV5 offered her a job and she took the opportunity to work in a bigger TV market.

“I think I learned some of the roughest lessons about life in my TV career,” she said. “What I loved about journalism is I had a front-row seat to humanity and to the world, and I learned a lot about how fragile life could be."

But she also became frustrated with the TV news industry. She wanted to dive deeper on stories, and she ultimately left, she said, because she couldn’t tell the stories she really wanted to tell.

She also climbed fast and hit a ceiling, she added. She didn’t figure out why until her last year in journalism.

“I was told I was too exotic and that maybe I need to move to the West Coast, where there were more Asians,” she said.

“And that was the time when I refused to go on. Because I said no, this is where I was born and raised, I represent part of this community. I shouldn’t have to move from Kansas City to represent the Asian-American community. This is my community.”

After leaving KCTV5, she took a job at Planned Parenthood Great Plains. The experience has been “quite liberating,” she said.

“I always said as a journalist, I’m more of an activist, and I keep thinking that quote-unquote ‘neutrality’ just wasn’t for me,” she added.

She knew from day one that she landed at the right place. Her TV news background translates into her work today, she said, since access to reproductive healthcare is “very much a racial and socioeconomic issue.”

“We were going through orientation, and I felt that I truly met my tribe of outspoken feminist women,” she said.

“I can truly go to work every day and say that I’m fulfilled one hundred percent.”

Growing up together

Even though they disagree on a lot of things, they say that there isn't any awkwardness around the family dinner table.

Political and personal beliefs have gotten exaggerated and extreme, said Bonjwing, and he doesn’t like it.

“I’ve always very much valued the fact that we live in this country where people have their opinions,” he said. “I very much respect the fact that my sister pursues what she believes is right, and she has every right to do it, and it’s great.”

Bonyen agrees.

“It’s not awkward. We’ve always been a very outspoken, honest family. We’ve always talked about what we truly believe in great debate,” she said. “But we have heated conversations, we do.”

“I think we’re the prime example of two people sitting on opposite sides, as society would have us think it, but realizing that we have a lot more in common in goals and interests, but just maybe perhaps different ways of thinking about it or coming at the problem,” Bonjwing said.

“I think what’s important is to realize that overlap and to help work towards that together,” he added.

While they’ve lived separate lives, they recognize the influence they’ve had on each other.

“My brother taught me to always pursue what I really truly wanted to do,” Bonyen said.

“My sister has always been willing to take more risks than I, though; I think I’m more risk-averse,” Bonjwing said, adding that for many years, he thought he should do what society probably expected him to do.

“He taught me the rewards you get when you pursue your passion,” Bonyen said.

“I find that so ironic,” interjected Bonjwing.

“She makes me realize that sometimes you need a little chaos in your life, in a good way,” he added.

Living with his sister in L.A. taught him how to live with someone who was very different that he was, he said.

“Learning that some people reach their life goal — and have different life goals that you do — has taught me to really consider the other person’s point of view,” he said.

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org.