Professor adds flavor to classes through dietetics skills

WKU professor Julie Lee assists Brazil freshman Bruno De Sousa (left) and Louisville sophomore Bruce Hunt (right) in her food science class on Tuesday, Feb. 18. Lee has been teaching at WKU for eight years and previously worked as a chef. “I’ve always wanted to teach and I’ve always wanted to be a chef,” Lee said. “I can’t believe I have been here so long, I have never worked anywhere this long before.” (Dorothy Edwards / Herald)

Anna Roederer

Along with her collection of eight hundred cookbooks, one professor is adding flavor to WKU with her years of experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics. 

Known to her students as “Chef Lee,” Julie Lee worked as a dietician and diabetes educator and was an executive chef at a large hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio prior to coming to WKU to teach food and nutrition courses. 

“I loved the pastries,” Lee said. “I loved working in kitchens, but I also love being an educator.”

Lee was a single mom with a 2 year old working 80 hours a week while running the hospital kitchen before she came to WKU in 2006. She said that she always wanted to get work experience before teaching. 

“You have to have seen what not to do. You very rarely see what to do. That’s what the textbooks are for,” Lee said. 

Richard Patterson, associate dean of Facilities and Management, was on the hiring committee for Lee and was impressed with her credentials.

“She’s a great person to work with,” Patterson said. “She knows more about food than most people I know.”

Lee has taught in both the hospitality and dietetics sides of the major and wants her students to draw on the background knowledge they have learned in her class to think on their feet when they are working.

Hopkinsville senior Ernest Simmons said that Lee’s classes have helped prepare him for a job.

“She relates everything we talk about in class to everyday life so that it is all not just textbooks but is related to what is actually going on in restaurant management today,” Simmons said.

Lee said that she tells her students to “logic through it” because she believes it to be the most important thing to do.  Simmons has experienced this firsthand while studying under Lee.

“She [Lee] would really have us think for ourselves and work our way through some problems we may have,” Simmons said. 

Patterson said that he has “somewhat stolen” Lee from the dietetics program, and she is primarily now in the hotel, restaurant, tourism management concentration because of her skills.

“In order to be a dietician, you have to know food and you have to know management,” Patterson said.

Lee started working in restaurants when she was 14. Originally, she studied pre-med, but Lee dropped out of college her freshman year and worked as a chef for several years before going back to school to study nutrition and dietetics in Cincinnati. She then completed her associate’s degree in culinary arts in Denver. 

Lee worked full time as a pastry chef while she was a full time student. The long hours she put in to get through school came at a cost. She graduated with not only a degree but also with diabetes — leading her to specializing in Diabetes Education.

“Diabetes is just my passion,” Lee said.

“I don’t think enough people understand it. A lot of people think it is a death sentence, and it doesn’t have to be.”

Lee said her diabetes was triggered by only getting four to five hours of sleep every night while completing her degree and that people don’t realize how significant sleep deprivation is. 

“I’m very against cramming for tests,” Lee said. “You stay up all night studying…that is just like taking a test after drinking one or two beers.” 

“The variety that she gives us is just different than what I have experienced in previous classes.” 

Lee keeps herself busy. While teaching full time at WKU, she is also working on a doctorate and working part time at the hospital.

“I like to broaden people’s palettes and experiences,” Lee said. 

Lee’s passion is diabetes education as well as international cuisine. She teaches an international cuisine class during the summer that fulfills a general education world cultures requirement.

She compiled 455 recipes for the five week course, requiring the students to cook two recipes three days a week in the class.

Lee said that she pesters her friends from other countries for recipes and that she gathers recipes from international students as well.

Simmons said his favorite part of being in Lee’s classes is her diverse background.

“She can give us a story about anything and how she has traveled and worked in different restaurants and different situations and hospitals,” Simmons said.