How Don Lee Is Finding a Hopeful Way Forward - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How Don Lee Is Finding a Hopeful Way Forward

The COVID-19 crisis has had an unprecedented effect on the hospitality industry, and will likely permanently reshape the way bars and restaurants operate. Throughout 2021, we’ll be turning to bartenders, bar owners, and other industry figures, asking them to share their stories about how the COVID crisis has affected their lives and livelihoods, and what’s giving them hope and direction for the months to come.

For this first installment, we spoke with Don Lee, a former partner in Existing Conditions in New York City who was recognized in 2020 as bar mentor of the year at Tales of the Cocktail. This conversation has been edited for space, clarity, and context.

It’s hard for me to talk about 2020 without talking about 2018. In 2018, I opened the bar [Existing Conditions]; about a month later, I got married. And three months later, I was diagnosed with cancer.

I had stage IV thymoma, a rare cancer that’s found in fewer that 400 people a year. Ironically, the cancer was easy to explain to people in the service industry. Most people may never have heard of a thymus, but if you work in restaurants, you know what sweetbreads are, so I basically had cancer of the sweetbreads. I’m fortunate that I’m in New York and Memorial Sloan Kettering is here, one of the best cancer hospitals in the world—I started treatment there in November 2018 and went through a few months of really intense chemo, a couple of crazy surgeries (losing my right lung along with the tumor and rerouting the blood flow to my heart), and a month of radiation.

It was only by the end of 2019 that I was able to take the subway on my own again, and I thought, “2020 is gonna be when it all goes back up—I beat cancer, the bar’s going strong, we got nominated for a James Beard Award, my hard times are behind me now.” I thought I could get back to living, as opposed to just surviving, which is where I was for a full year.

And then, coronavirus happened. The first two weeks of March, seeing the dominos start to fall and having to make the decision to close the bar before New York City officially shut down, we didn’t feel in good conscience we could ask our staff to get on the subway. That feels like a million years ago now.

The spring and summer were stressful, between waiting for help from the government (it never really came), and watching the global COVID numbers climb. Staying safe became the top priority, and that also meant trying to figure out how to keep our staff and guests safe when we could eventually reopen. In a way, we were ideally positioned to pivot to bottled cocktails, since we already had a vending-machine service and half our recipes were prepared in advance. Sadly, we didn’t get the chance to reopen—Existing Conditions was one of the pandemic’s many casualties.

Without the bar, the most regular thing I have in my life right now is physical therapy, getting my body back in shape so that once we get back to the real world, I’ll be able to work. That, and hobby woodworking, which has been more a lesson in philosophy than learning a new skill. There’s the saying, “Measure twice and cut once,” but that’s not how it actually works. Following plans works in theory, but when it comes to cutting and shaping wood, you have to do what’s right for the piece you have. Every piece, even from the same tree, is unique and bends in its own way. Precision and accuracy aren’t defined by fractions of inches or degrees of an angle—they’re defined by the boards you’re joining together, by putting the pieces against each other and cutting as many times as you need until they fit.

Thinking about the future [after the pandemic], I don’t have specific plans so much as I have intentions; mostly to look for alternatives. The industry as we know it is broken in many ways, and the coronavirus just accelerated many things that were probably going to happen eventually. The inequalities that have been laid bare are issues that were always there. We ignored and plastered over these cracks because we were so busy keeping service going. Now that we’ve been forced to stop, we can see the giant canyons for what they really are. When I’m given the opportunity to do something in the future, I don’t want to re-create the same industry with the same problems as before.

I came into this industry as a career changer. I escaped from my cubicle prison, not because I wanted cocktails but because I wanted to be around people who worked in bars and restaurants. That hasn’t changed—at the end of all this, my goal is to work with these same people in whatever capacity I can. My goal was never to make the best cocktail, or open the best bar—it’s to spend my time with the best people, the people who make this industry what it is. I consider that time well spent.

Enjoy This Article?

Sign up for our newsletter and get biweekly recipes and articles delivered to your inbox.

Send this to a friend