August Issue: K-pop Star Turned Chef Remakes Southern BBQ

Changing BBQ As We Know It

A K-pop-star-turned-chef brings a special brand of hot, hot, hot ingredients from the homeland to Southern palates.

story by Lola Pak
photographs by Matthew M. Wong

AS WITH PIZZA in New York City, the debate surrounding “authentic” barbecue in the South is as fiery as the wood-burning chambers it smokes in. So, in Atlanta, Ga., it would seem that an attempt to mess with traditional barbecue marinade by adding spicy Korean red pepper paste (gochujang) might not go over very well with some of the locals.

But when chefs Jiyeon Lee and Cody Taylor opened Heirloom Market BBQ last November, Georgians instead displayed Southern hospitality, embracing the restaurant’s unique, Korean-influenced culinary offerings.

Despite its location in a small, unassuming shack next to a liquor store on the outskirts of Atlanta, Heirloom has practically become an overnight success. The first of the restaurant’s 280 average daily customers (500 on weekends) can often be seen queuing up a half-hour before opening and just in time to catch Lee setting up the sidewalk chalkboard with the day’s specials. Reviewers on Yelp have raved about the soft, smoky texture of the gochujang-laden ribs and launched the restaurant to the city’s top-rated eatery for the term barbecue.


That’s a particularly notable accomplishment for Lee, a native of Korea who was a famous Korean pop star during the 1980s and admitted she wasn’t initially a big fan of American barbecue. After she immigrated to the United States in 2001, however, she traded in her microphone for a chef’s knife, trained at the Le Cordon Bleu and worked at some of Atlanta’s finest restaurants. As she settled in the South, she also grew to love American-style ribs.

“I realized that it matched perfectly with galbi, my favorite Korean dish, and it became my favorite type of American food,” said Lee, known among her colleagues as JiJi.

Of course, as much as she enjoyed traditional Southern staples like ribs and brisket, she also realized ingredients from Korean cuisine could enhance the flavors. At Heirloom, ribs are steeped in a gochujang marinade for 24 hours, while dwaenjang soup, made from fermented soy beans, is injected into the menu’s beef brisket.

“Classically speaking, our style of barbecue has never been done,” said Taylor, a native of Texas and Tennessee, who met Lee while working at the acclaimed Repast in Atlanta. “The ingredients we use are changing barbecue as we know it.”

In fact, nearly every aspect of Heirloom seems to have a Korean or Asian flavor to it, from Korean cookbooks and soju bottles on the shelves to the oil paintings canvassed by Lee herself. Instead of traditional Southern sweet tea, jasmine or green tea is served. The spicy Korean pork sandwich is routinely offered as a special and is one of the eatery’s most popular items—an anecdotal testament to how far Korean cuisine has come in the South.

“Some people say the sandwich is too spicy, but they still order it and love it,” said Lee. “I actually think we need to make it spicier!”

Korean sweet potatoes with black sesame seeds

Still, the menu overall remains committed to its Dixie context, with items like the Georgia Sampler (pork, chicken, quarter-rack of ribs and choice of brisket, turkey or sausage), handcrafted sausages (andouille, Texas beef, alligator) and side dishes of mac and cheese, baked beans, collard greens and fried okra.


Lorenzo Wallace, a self-proclaimed barbecue expert with a family background in ‘cuing, admitted he has quickly become an Heirloom regular. As he dipped his fork into a bowl of cucumber radish salad, he said Heirloom’s ribs “taste better than anything I’ve ever had.”

Spicy Korean pork sandwich

As a teenager growing up in South Korea, Lee had toyed with the idea of becoming a chef. Instead, she launched a singing career and became a sensation for her hit pop-ballad, roughly translated as “Wind, Stop Blowing.” Decades later, she puts in nearly 12-hour days running Heirloom and says it’s not likely that she’ll return to the stage. Her future plans include moving Heirloom to a larger space and opening a Korean restaurant, as well as a seafood-only spot.

“Succeeding in the American restaurant industry is my dream now,” Lee said. “Now that I’ve gained an understanding of the tastes and preferences of Americans, I want to widen my passion, and not just with barbecue.”

Heirloom Market BBQ
2243 Akers Mill Rd.
Atlanta, GA

This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe now!