Greg Lee isn’t your typical college senior. Between working as a dishwasher at 14 and launching his UNLV career 15 years later, Lee managed to eat his way across Spain, mix cocktails in Australia, and brew saké in Japan. He even took a break from the kitchen to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for education in Africa.
And though Lee’s insatiable curiosity about the world has immeasurably enriched his culinary education, he always wanted to land the kind of formal education that makes for successful entrepreneurs.
“My creative side was already there, but I needed direction on how to run a successful business,” says Lee, who plans to one day own a Spanish restaurant.
Finding His Path
At UNLV, Lee found an avenue to master the nuts and bolts of the restaurant business while satisfying his appetite for out-of-the-ordinary learning experiences.So when the opportunity arose to work alongside 50 top local chefs at UNLV’s long-standing wine and food festival, UNLVino, Lee was all in.
“It’s going to be a good time,” says Lee through a smile that rarely leaves the California native’s face.
This year’s “50 restaurants, 50 unique pairings” theme (a nod to the College of Hospitality’s 50th anniversary) is in perfect step with Lee’s long-term career plans.
“My goal is to work at the world’s best restaurants,” he says, “and by working UNLVino with some of the best chefs in the world, I’m one big step closer to that goal.”
In addition to providing support to participating restaurants, Lee and the other UNLVino management teams get hands-on experience developing menu items for the event’s food stations, managing volunteers, working on venue set-up and marketing, and orchestrating the annual silent auction. Proceeds from the event go to fund academic scholarships for UNLV hospitality students.
Traveling the Globe
Like some other nontraditional hospitality students, Lee brings a depth of industry savvy to the classroom — although Lee’s history reads more like something out of a novel. After earning a professional culinary arts certificate, he cooked at various hotspots around Los Angeles and then for Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas before setting off on an 18-month culinary adventure around the world.
“I had so many amazing opportunities,” says Lee. “I cooked at the Blanche Bar in Australia, I got to write cocktail menus for Drai’s nightclub in China and Skyla in Broome, Australia, and was sponsored to go to south Japan to learn how to make saké at the famous Dassai factory.”
He admits that coming to college as an experienced hospitality professional has its advantages. For one thing, he came in with the understanding that there are no shortcuts in the business — a reality, he says, that frustrates some of his classmates.
“Everyone wants to jump straight into management and propel into the industry; but they quickly realize, book smarts will not provide the confidence you need to lead — not without experience.”
In keeping with that advice, Lee stays immersed in the industry, spending most days in class and most nights managing the restaurant Off the Strip. He further divides his time serving as president of UNLV’s Beverage Management Club and shadowing Bellagio food & beverage executive Dominique Bertolone as part of the college’s industry mentor program.
Recently, Lee was able to explore his other passion — wine making — when the college sent him and a handful of other hospitality students on a four-day wine workshop in Napa Valley, courtesy of Trinchero Wineries.
“I have had big dreams ever since I was young, but UNLV has pushed me to wanting to become the best that I can be,” says Lee. “I hardly sleep, but I love every moment of it and don’t see myself slowing down any time soon.”