Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by BentoLicious, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “Clean and fine flavors makes a homestyle veggie bento.”
It all started with making delicious Zongzi — Taiwanese sticky rice dumplings — for family and friends. That’s when Jessica Lee developed the idea to start up a small family kitchen, and then in 2018, her restaurant, BentoLicious, had officially opened. “My philosophy is making the dishes as if I will serve them on my home table,” said Jessica. As a mother of three children, Jessica has high standards for her food, ensuring that her creations are both delicious and of excellent quality. Because of her strict self-regulation, customers have built a great deal of love and trust for Jessica’s food at BentoLicious.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation in March of 2020, BentoLicious was fortunate to be able to quickly resume its business. With encouragement from customers, Jessica also began thinking about designing veggie bentos, and happily took the opportunity to join the Very Veggie Movement to promote plant-powered meals with Tzu Chi.
When walking into BentoLicious in Pleasanton, California, the clean white tables and chairs, neat wooden counter, and green walls have a way of creating a warm and relaxing atmosphere. Of the 14 tasty dishes on the table, 10 are veggie, giving veggie-lovers a splendid selection to pick from. “Even before I opened this store, I told my husband that if I could open a restaurant, I would name it 20/80, because 20% of the dishes are meat dishes and 80% are veggie dishes.” Jessica Lee, the owner and founder of BentoLicious and a mother of three, has a lot of experience cooking vegetables in a manner that even picky eaters will find gratifying. “I want my family to eat healthily and cook a lot of veggie dishes at home. I also want my guests to be healthy. My concept is to extend my home kitchen to the restaurant dining room.” As a result, Jessica imbues each of the dishes she creates at BentoLicious with a wonderfully sincere and homey taste.
Just a Small Place
“I really loved eating when I was a child, and my mother loved to cook, so I always stood in the kitchen and watched her cooking.” Jessica’s talent for cooking was inspired by her mother’s own culinary finesse, and majored in hospitality in college. She also worked part-time in assorted restaurants during that period and became familiar with the inner-workings of the restaurant environment.
Later on, Jessica got married, had children, and once all three children had grown old enough, she started thinking that maybe she could take some more time to do something she enjoys: “I missed Taiwanese Zongzi so much that I started to learn how to make it by myself. I gave some Zongzi to my friends. And my friends all said they were so delicious that they wanted to buy them. So I started to cook more food and received more positive feedback until I finally thought maybe I could open a home kitchen.” Jessica said that she was planning to find a small place to open a takeaway stall. With help from her husband, however, she found herself at a restaurant in Pleasanton that could fit a few more tables and chairs. “I told my husband, ‘this place is bigger than I thought and I need your help to run the restaurant.’” And from that day forward, Jessica’s husband’s welcoming smile beamed from behind the front counter. He remembered the names of their guests and greeted them cheerfully. Together, the couple worked hard for the restaurant as if it was truly an extension of their own home.
“A lot of bento restaurants prepare more meat dishes than vegetable dishes. There are usually only one or two vegetable dishes, but my restaurant has a rich choice of vegetable dishes every day. If you don’t want to eat meat, you can choose a delicious veggie bento in BentoLicious.” Jessica said that her son participated in a Tzu Chi activity held by the Very Veggie Movement, and took on the challenge of developing recipes using Jing Si Tea. Together with her son, Jessica thought a lot about how to make tasty vegetarian desserts, and she found the process to be very interesting. Rachel Lin, a volunteer who led the high school students in making the veggie foods for this activity, expressed, “I can see that the boy cooks food with great care and has high requirements for quality and taste. It is an education granted from his family, especially from his mom.”
Extending the Family Kitchen
Rachel was indeed correct — Jessica has persistent requirements for the quality of food. “My philosophy is to extend the family kitchen to the dining room of the restaurant. How I cook for my family, I also ask the chef to cook for the guests according to my method,” said Jessica. She remembered that when she first opened the eatery, she asked the person helping her wash the vegetables to cut the cabbage and rinse them carefully. The helper told her that many restaurants just peeled off a few outer leaves, cutting and cooking them without washing. “You’ll regret it when you receive the water bill at the end of the month!” Jessica’s helper had advised. But Jessica refused to lower her standards.
“My customers say that the dishes in my restaurant taste like the food made by their mom because I don’t put a lot of oil and the seasoning is relatively simple, and of course, they are definitely delicious.” Jessica emphasized that the veggie dishes she cooked needed to be especially delicious. She believes that one core reason why veggie dishes are difficult to promote on a larger scale is because they are seen as being less flavorful. “My younger son and I tried a new veggie recipe together. We made a hot and sour soup for my older son. He was amazed, saying ‘Mom, I can’t believe you didn’t put chicken in this!’” Jessica said her secret is to use cabbage broth. “I am the mother of three children. I know it’s hard to make children eat vegetables. So I developed my own way to cook vegetables from that experience.”
She then shared her personal recipe for roasted cabbage. Jessica uses vegan bacon, fried onions, and cabbage which is boiled to create the vegetable stock.
Using another pan, she melts a little bit of butter and slowly sprinkles in flour to produce a creamy sauce. The melding of vegetable stock and seasonings creates a wonderful flavor for the dish. Onions fried until soft are poured into the batter, and with a gentle helping of mozzarella cheese, the meal is ready for the oven. “Children who don’t like to eat vegetables will love it,” said Jessica with a smile.
Jessica puts the same amount of sincerity and effort into cooking all of her veggie dishes in the restaurant. “For example,” she began, “the popular dish, salt and pepper pumpkin. We choose the Japanese pumpkin, kabocha, which has a higher sweetness, and cut it into bite-sized pieces. I wrap them with flour, slightly fry them, then add green and red bell peppers, and flavor them with salt and pepper. So the dish is salty outside and sweet inside. Another example is our green beans. Many restaurants use deep-frying when dealing with green beans. But at home, we won’t cook like that. So I just boil the green beans and fry them according to our home recipe. It is not so greasy and can maintain a refreshing taste.” Because BentoLicious’s dishes feature a home-cooked style that’s healthy and delicious, Jessica said that quite a few customers will eat in the restaurant five days per week.
We Wore Masks Before the Pandemic
“I admit that I am a bit demanding in keeping the restaurant clean, but because of this, we have unexpected gains,” Jessica said. When the pandemic hit in March of last year, the restaurant’s business was affected, but it recovered remarkably fast. “On one hand, we always focused on take-out. On the other hand, our customers trust us because even before the pandemic, our waiters were already wearing masks.” Jessica said that in January of last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic had taken root in the United States, the restaurant was already equipped with hand sanitizers. “We began to prepare in January. When guests see that you have protocols when other restaurants hadn’t even thought of it, they will have more trust in you.”
During the pandemic, Jessica also joined Tzu Chi’s Very Veggie Movement as a partner, making a wish to eat more vegetarian, herself. “Some of the guests asked me if I could make veggie bentos and there are also companies that want to order veggie bento sets. I made ‘Three Cups Eryngii Mushrooms,’ and the feedback was very good. They wanted me to develop more veggie foods.” Committed to supporting good health, Jessica purchased various veggie products to try in brand new recipes as well. “Vegan bacon really works well. I use it to cook soup or fry with vegetables. All the dishes taste very good. And there are vegan chicken drumsticks; it matches nicely with stir-fried vegetables.” Through Jessica’s partnership with the Very Veggie Movement, she’s become even more inspired to explore fresh ideas for her menu, and offers discounts to individuals who sign up for the Very Veggie Movement.
Jessica said that the restaurant has always been like home, just with more guests. “My customers said that they get used to eating our foods, and every time they visit it’s like visiting a sister and taking home some nice food she made for you.” At the end of the day, Jessica said that her secret is to “Put your heart in it.” And indeed, love is the key to keeping the standards at BentoLicious high in every aspect while bringing forth its uniquely warm and homey atmosphere.
Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!