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James Beard Nominee to Help Bring Korean Food to U.S. Homes with New Products, Partnership

Four-time James Beard Award nominee Chef Edward Lee will partner with popular Korean food brand Bibigo to create a series of products and recipes that will usher Korean flavors into American homes, the two parties announced.

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Chef Edward Lee in the kitchen of Milkwood, a restaurant he founded in downtown Louisville, Ky. John Brecher / NBC News

Bibigo, which is the fastest-growing brand under CJ Foods, first launched in 2011 with a line of mini wontons, steamed dumplings, and gochujang sauce in squeezable bottles. The company later produced additional gochujang flavors that would be recognizable to American eaters, such as Go-Chu-Jang Hot & Sweet, Go-Chu-Jang Mayo, and Go-Chu-Jang BBQ sauce.

Now, they’re enlisting the help of Lee to reach more American consumers with creative takes on traditional dishes.

“Edward is extraordinary when it comes to his passion for both American and Korean food,” Pious Jung, CEO of CJ America, told NBC News. “With his knowledge and experience, he’s a natural fit for our food brand.”

Lee owns three restaurants in Kentucky and Washington, D.C., and has appeared on shows such as "The Mind of a Chef" on PBS and Bravo's "Top Chef," where he was featured as a contestant in season nine. The Korean-American chef's unique cooking style, which involves blending Korean ingredients with American dishes typically found in the South, is representative of Bibigo’s mission, Jung said.

Dishes Lee are particularly known for include Korean fried chicken and collared greens mixed with kimchi.

“It’ll be fun to push the envelope a bit,” Lee told NBC News about the collaboration, which he said is in its early stages and will approach the recipe test stage in the next month. “Bibigo is known for selling more traditional dishes in grocery stores, but we’re going to make these next recipes a little more modern.”

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Bibigo sauces in squeezable bottles
Bibigo launched in 2011 with a line of mini wontons, steamed dumplings, and gochujang sauce in squeezable bottles. The company later produced additional gochuchang flavors that would be recognizable to American eaters, such as Go-Chu-Jang Hot & Sweet, Go-Chu-Jang Mayo, and Go-Chu-Jang BBQ sauce. Courtesy of Bibigo

The revamping of their Bibigo food product line is just one way Korea's CJ Group is trying to incorporate Korean culture into mainstream America. The corporation is behind Korean music festival and culture convention KCON, which started in 2012 as an experimental, one-day event in Southern California, but has since expanded to the East Coast and overseas to countries like Japan and France. While the inaugural convention recorded an attendance rate of 12,000, last year more than 118,000 fans attended KCON in LA and New York, according to the group.

American consumers’ increasing interest in Korean culture can be visibly measured in the rise of Korean beauty products in U.S. markets, as well as in the integration of K-pop groups into the entertainment industry. Seven-member Korean boy band BTS made history in May when they took home the Top Social Artist Award and became the first K-pop group to win at the Billboard Music Awards.

Korean food has also steadily made its way into American lives, with Korean restaurants seeing an average annual growth of 3.5 percent between 2011 to 2016, according to a 2016 report from Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) Chicago.

“Korean food used to be this really mysterious thing to Americans, and now, last week I think I saw a TGI Friday’s ad for Korean chicken,” Lee said.

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