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Donna Lee: CEO, Chopped champion, culinary creator
Evanston native Lee discovered passion for food through early job opportunities that jumpstarted her career
April 20, 2023
If you were to tell 18-year-old Donna Lee that she would become an accomplished chef one day, she wouldn’t have believed you. Now, Lee is not only a 2023 Champion on Chopped, Food Network’s cooking show, but also the founder and CEO of Brown Bag Seafood Co., a popular and well-loved seafood company located in Roscoe Village Chicago, along with 14 other locations nationwide.
Born and raised in Evanston, Lee’s passion for food has always existed; however, she was unaware that it would manifest itself into a career. She attended ETHS for four years, where she was a very involved student.
“I was a dancer throughout high school, so much of my time was spent at school socializing and dancing,” Lee shares.
Throughout her teenage years, Lee was exposed to what truly happens in the kitchen of a restaurant. At just 16 years old, she got her first job at Blind Faith Cafe, and has worked in the food industry ever since. This served as a jumping-off point to her career.
“I thought the restaurants were just a summer job or something that wasn’t that big of a deal, but it turned out [to be] where my passion was,” says Lee.
Along with her experience at Blind Faith, the numerous resources at ETHS introduced Lee to the career pathways intertwined with food and management. Senior Studies, an opportunity that allows seniors at ETHS to discover and experience their career of choice, opened new doors for Lee and her future.
“I did a catering-focused course in Senior Studies,” Lee says. “I worked with a caterer and events specialist, [which] continued to cultivate my interest in the culinary field.”
I thought the restaurants were just a summer job or something that wasn’t that big of a deal, but it turned out [to be] where my passion was.
— Donna Lee, Chopped champion
After graduating from ETHS, Lee attended Indiana University Bloomington (IU), where she majored in sociology. After two years, she transferred to the University of Illinois Chicago. Once she completed college, Lee recognized that her interests and passions were shifting back to the food and business management field. Eventually, she decided that owning her own business would provide her the freedom to explore new avenues; in May 2011, Lee established Brown Bag Seafood Co.
After owning her business for multiple years and opening other locations, the restaurant had found success. This created many opportunities for Lee to fluctuate and grow, in her restaurant and personal career.
In early 2020, Lee received an unexpected email asking if she was interested in competing in the reality cooking show, Chopped. After discussing the news with her co-workers, they all agreed that it was an opportunity that could not be turned down.
Walking into the Chopped kitchen, Lee hoped her preparation would serve her well. Before the momentous event, Lee’s friends created a simulation to mimic the environment of the show.
“I had a bunch of friends who said, ‘We’re going to practice. We’re going to put you on timers, we’re going to [give] you random ingredients and see what can happen,’” Lee explains.
When the time came to actually cook for the show, it was an unexpectedly big challenge. According to Lee, it is difficult to observe the pressure when you’re watching Chopped from the comfort of your home. When being physically there, however, trying to manage the stress you watch other people experience on television is a completely different story.
“One of the things that’s so challenging about Chopped is you’re in an unfamiliar environment. You [have to] figure out what you have to work with and what equipment you need. You’re working with a pantry that you’ve never touched before and there [are] 15 cameras that are in your space,” Lee explains. “You’re balancing all of these things [which] makes it pretty hard to think.”
Though a transformative experience, participating on Chopped was immensely taxing. Yet, it was all worth it when Lee was crowned Chopped Champion and sent home with $10,000.
I had a bunch of friends who said, ‘We’re going to practice. We’re going to put you on timers, we’re going to [give] you random ingredients and see what can happen.’
— Donna Lee, Evanston native
Returning to Chicago with such a large sum of money gave Lee plenty of opportunities. Ultimately, she decided to give the money to co-workers at Brown Bag, as well as her family.
“We all work hard and I want them to make sure they feel recognized,” says Lee.
Lee’s personality has allowed her to create meaningful relationships, both in and out of the work environment. For Lee, coworker and friend Kathleen Cole have been an important addition to the restaurant.
Lee first interacted with Cole over the phone, when she was interviewed for a general management position at one of the Brown Bag branches.
“I could tell after the phone call that I liked her right away,” says Cole, regarding the first of many conversations she has had with the founder of Brown Bag.
After years spent working at Brown Bag, Cole currently works as the Area Director of four Brown Bag restaurants in the Chicago area. A close friend of Lee’s, Cole was one of the first to hear that Lee won Chopped. Ultimately, Cole was right by her side throughout the entire process; from the day she received the email to the day she took home her prize.
Overall, Lee’s experience on Chopped was a result of her successful career in the food industry. Her accomplishment especially reverberated with her employees.
“It was such a good moment for us; a bonding moment for the whole entire company,” remarks Cole. “To see her shine like that was awesome because she does so much and usually only we get to see it. Now the world can see it too.”