“Steroids for your gas burner.” That’s how popular foodie website seriouseats.com describes the WokMon, an innovative new product invented by North Bergen resident Glen Lee.
“This is what’s been missing in American cooking,” said Lee. “Look at the bottom of American pots. You’ll see a dead spot in the center.”
He’s talking about the fact that typical gas stoves light in a ring, with the flame pointing outward. This creates a relatively even heat that works well for flat-bottomed pots and frying pans, but it’s not the way woks were intended to be used.
Traditional woks are thin with rounded bottoms and are intended to sear food quickly at high temperatures. Chinese restaurants use industrial stoves that generate much more intense heat and direct it at the center of the wok. Food is then moved quickly through the hot spot to cook rapidly, retaining flavor, texture, and healthiness.
“The heat is the most important issue in wok cooking,” said Lee. “Now people won’t have to go to the Chinese restaurant as much because they can replicate the heat.”
“The heat is the most important issue in wok cooking.” –Glen Lee
The road to WokMon
Where did Lee find inspiration for the WokMon? “Watching my relatives bitching because they could never get the flame hot enough,” he laughed.
“I was always a tinkerer and problem solver,” he said of his youth. “I’d always take things apart. It started with taking apart toys and then putting them back together.”
Originally from New York, he moved to California where he worked as an engineer in the aerospace industry. “I made jet engine parts so I know the concept of a jet engine,” he said. “Look at the WokMon. This is a jet engine.”
Lee’s first invention came in the 1980s with EZ-Sticks, a set of connected, spring-loaded chopsticks for people who can’t use chopsticks.
At the time, Lee was the image of an entrepreneurial inventor, selling out of his garage – literally. “I sold my Porsche,” said Lee, explaining how he funded the project. “I was a single guy working in aerospace, was making decent money, I had this idea, and I went ahead and sold my ‘ride’ and had this thing made.”
EZ-Sticks made a splash and were marketed through several national chains before Lee sold the concept to Benihana.
In the ensuing years he traveled throughout Southeast Asia while working for a direct-sales company. Living in Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, and Malaysia, “I was able to experience the way people cooked. I took a lot of mental notes,” he said. “Then I came back here and instead of going back to L.A. I settled in New York to be closer to my family.”
Here the concept of the WokMon first took hold when he saw the frustration of his relatives trying to cook with a wok on Western stoves. “I came up with this idea in the mid ’90s. It was that long. Almost 20 years,” said Lee. “I had a little workshop and I started making prototypes and then life took over and I put it aside.”
“Life” for Lee consisted of acting in movies, TV shows, and commercials. With a steady gig on “Law & Order: SVU” – then being filmed in North Bergen – he made the move to New Jersey in the early 2000s.
“I’ve been in the [entertainment] business since the ’80s,” he said, displaying a photograph of himself in the 1986 cult film “Big Trouble in Little China.” Still a working actor today, he recently had a role as Richard Gere’s butler in “Arbitrage.”
“At the end of the shoot he sent me a thank you card,” said Lee. “Richard Gere went out of his way, went to production, got my address, and sent me a thank you card. What a first-class act.”
Upcoming films featuring Lee include “Tracers,” with a scene filmed on Delancey Street wherein he swears in Chinese at Taylor Lautner, and “Revenge of the Green Dragons,” a film shot in Brooklyn about Chinese gangs in the 1970s. The latter film was executive produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Andrew Lau, who helmed the original film on which Scorsese’s “The Departed” was based.
During all the time that Lee was acting in films and TV, the idea of the WokMon (originally called “dragon’s breath”) kept percolating.
“I spent a lot of long hours thinking about it, as a stand-in or doing a commercial,” said Lee. “You get a lot of time on set. Most actors write scripts or they write stories. I’m working on an invention.”
How to get one
Recently Lee decided it was time to make the product a reality, inspired by various factors including the popularity of food network shows and national health initiatives such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.
That meant developing prototypes, graphics, and even a cookbook for the product.
The WokMon isn’t yet available for purchase. Instead, Lee has launched a page on the crowdsourcing site Crowdzu to generate interest, pre-sell units, and raise funds. His goal is to raise $200,000 by July 4.
Contributors can pledge differing amounts and receive various products in return, including cleavers, the cookbook, woks, and of course WokMons once they become available, currently planned for early October.
The first 200 contributors can purchase a WokMon for $38; the next 300 for $42; after that they will go for $50.
Users need to measure their burners and purchase the correct size unit, since stoves vary in size. Lee intends to have the product manufactured in America.
For details, visit http://www.crowdzu.com/funding/campaigns/19/wokmon/.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.