Lee and his co-worker/videographer, Derek Veech, whipped up the YouTube cooking channel, “Pandemic Kitchen,” to help others prepare restaurant quality meals at home. The two work at Step One Automotive Group in Fort Walton Beach.

FORT WALTON BEACH — After a lifetime of experimenting in the kitchen and binge-watching cooking shows from “Cutthroat Kitchen” to “Chopped,” Michael Lee was ready for his own – and what better time than in a quarantine.


Lee and his co-worker/videographer, Derek Veech, whipped up the YouTube cooking channel, “Pandemic Kitchen,” to help others prepare restaurant quality meals at home. The two work at Step One Automotive Group in Fort Walton Beach.


“I’m a lifelong learner,” Lee said. “Every single day, I want to learn something new. A lot of the cooking stuff on TV seemed not quite relevant given today’s situation, so we got the idea of taking some of the skills I’ve learned cooking and trying to share that with people. So either trying to cook as cheaply, but deliciously as possible or cooking at an average budget, but trying to make something spectacular that’s far in excess of what you’re going to get out of a local restaurant.”


In the first video, Lee concocted an upgraded version of meat and potatoes. The pair plans to film a new tutorial every other Friday.


Lee is comfortable in a kitchen – always has been.


He has prepared a meal or two a day since he was a teenager.


“I’ve got about 5,000 dishes I do pretty well,” Lee said. “I can modify those 5,000. I like to cook.”


Because of his love for cooking competition TV shows, he gives himself challenges.


“Tonight my challenge is I want to do an Eastern European – Ukranian, Hungarian – kind of beef stroganoff,” Lee said. “But because I’m putting a challenge to myself, it has to be based around Hamburger Helper, and I can’t spend more than $3 on the spices.”


While “Pandemic Kitchen” won’t follow the competition style formula, it will feature three types of episodes. The first is how to make delicious food on a budget.



“I’m going to break down the cost,” Lee said. “Like, the fried rice is going to come in between $5 and $6 for a meal that will feed four people. You’re going to see the splurge-y dinner, the ‘Hey, we deserve a steak. How can I do this steak so it’s equal or better to a restaurant quality steak using stuff I have around the house?’ The last one is, ‘I’m trapped at home. How do I make really, really amazing cocktails that are not normal cocktails for an inexpensive price?’”


Lee wants to help people cook while coping with the coronavirus outbreak.


“For me, the big thing is everybody has had their lives disrupted,” Lee said. “They went from being able to go out and enjoy meals that are a five out of 10, compared to them cooking at home, which is like a two or three out of 10. A lot of people don’t know how to get from 2 or three out of 10 to that five out of 10 or 10 out of 10 level.”


Lee knows how to upgrade a meal.


“I’ve got a degree in microbiology and I also took a lot of physics and chemistry,” Lee said. “I dated my way around the restaurant world of New York, so I picked up a lot of tips and tricks out of the Michelin Star restaurant world. I can make the same kind of burgers you would pay $40 to $400 for in New York City.”


Lee tries to understand the math and science behind cooking, and the evolution of why people like what they like, he said.


“How do we hack into our subconscious to make something more delicious?” Lee said. “For example, our ancestors, the ones that liked Allium – that’s a plant family that includes green onions, scallions, leeks – they have antimicrobial properties. The people who liked the taste of it, mixed it in with their food, they wound up with fewer bacterial infections and less cases of food poisoning, so they passed on the gene.”


Enhancing a meal often comes down to texture differences. The difference between a home steak and a restaurant steak is the crispy texture on the exterior, Lee said.


“That’s actually really easy to make,” Lee said. “All you have to do is dry off the outside, put a little mayonnaise on the outside and that mayonnaise is made up of protein and fat, and it’s a binder to bind salt to it. Then when it heats up, it undergoes a reaction that gives you that beautiful, crispy steak on the outside without having to get it at a restaurant.”


What Lee isn’t telling us, though, is his culinary skills draw crowds to their break room at the dealership, Veech said. Lee’s co-workers have taste-tested his theories.


“We know when Mike Lee is about to start cooking,” Veech said. “We have a little break room, and we hear the sounds and the smell just radiates through the building. It’s a big thing at work whenever he does his lunch presentations. We eat well there.”


The motivation to start their channel sprang from Lee’s break room dishes.


“We had jokingly said, ‘We should just do a video about this,’ Veech said. ”This was before everything happened. Now that we have some free time, we’re like, ‘Let’s go ahead and do this.’“


Veech enjoys their side project, he said. At work, he is on the media creative team, and Lee does math problem solving.


“We blend together with our talents and we have similar interests,” Veech said. “It breaks up my day job of doing commercial work when I get to work on passion projects and things that are good to give back to the community and people can find useful. He pays me in food, which is really good on my end.”


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