Ask a Chef is part of an on-going series in which 5280 poses a single question to a local culinary luminary.

When Denver native Tommy Lee returned to his hometown after business school and a jaunt through Europe, he opened Uncle in LoHi. He intended for it to be just a noodle—not a ramen—shop, doubting his ability to adequately prepare the deceivingly simple Japanese dish. But after the near-immediate influx of positive feedback, his focus quickly shifted. Lee shared with us his original inspiration for the concept.

5280: When was the moment you knew you wanted to open a restaurant?

Tommy Lee: I don’t know the exact moment. I went to business school originally, but I was always into food and cooking so after college I gave it a try, worked in some kitchens. And I actually didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. So I quit for a while and dabbled in some other jobs. I guess the experience that changed my life, and my view of restaurants, was traveling to New York and L.A.—at the time it was 2004 or 2005. In Denver, there was nobody really doing simple casual food that focused on just one thing—like a noodle shop or whatever else. I think seeing places like that in New York and L.A. that were thriving kind of gave me validation that something like that could work. For instance, Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York. This Cambodian sandwich shop in New York called Num Pang. Even places like Pink’s Hot Dogs in L.A. They just know hot dogs and they have a two-hour line every day. There’s also a place out in L.A. called Din Tai Fung, and they specialize in dumplings and soup dumplings. Places like that. They’re not necessarily opened by big name chefs. Just people doing traditional food and focusing on a few things and doing it well and being really popular.