Maki, miso and mining in Whitehorse

Keun Hwan Lee came to Whitehorse to become a placer miner. Instead, the mining engineer is watching exploration boom from behind a sushi counter on Main Street.

Keun Hwan Lee came to Whitehorse to become a placer miner.

Instead, the mining engineer is watching exploration boom from behind a sushi counter on Main Street.

Tuna maki, California rolls and miso soup pay the bills, but Lee never meant to become a sushi chef.

Back home in South Korea, he studied mining at university. Then, fresh out of school he started working in a coal mine.

“It was bad conditions,” said Lee. “We were deep underground and the air quality was not good, there was lots of coal dust.”

So Lee decided to go back to school, this time as a foreign student at the University of British Columbia, to study mineral processing.

After graduation, he sent his resume to more than 50 companies, but “mining was not good at the time and my status was not Canadian,” he said.

A few years later, Lee became Canadian.

But by then, he’d found a job in a sushi restaurant, processing fish instead of minerals.

“I had to do something (to support) life,” said Lee, who had a young family. “And I had a friend in the restaurant business.”

A fast learner, it wasn’t long until Lee had his own licensed restaurant in Vancouver and found himself working 16-hour days.

But mining continued to tug at his heartstrings.

“I wanted to try and practise my knowledge in real life,” he said.

So, when Lee found an opening at the sushi counter above Shopper’s Drug Mart on Main Street, he packed up his family and moved to Whitehorse.

“It seemed like a good place to practise and I was interested in placer mining,” he said.

The idea was to make sushi until the family got settled, then to launch into his mining career.

But five years later, Lee is still slicing fish and making maki.

“I wanted time to do some placer mining, but I’ve been too busy,” he said.

By 9 a.m. everyday, Lee is carefully cutting up raw salmon, tuna and red snapper and prepping California rolls to beat the lunch rush, while his wife mixes water, salt and sugar into the steaming sushi rice. Miso soup simmers in a slow cooker and crisp sheets of seaweed sit on the counter, ready to be turned into rolls.

By evening, when things die down a bit, Lee begins prepping for the next day, and the whole process begins again.

Business has been so steady, Lee hasn’t had time for a holiday since he came to the Yukon five years ago.

But next week, that will change.

For the first time in 16 years, Lee is going back to South Korea to visit family and friends and attend his niece’s wedding.

Lee’s leaving his wife, Hyee Young Lee, in charge of the sushi counter.

It’s going to be a hectic two weeks for Hyee, but she has a plan.

All proceeds from the restaurant’s sales during this period will go to African famine relief.

“I will send the money to World Vision,” she said.

With holidays so hard to come by, and two children about to start university, Keun isn’t sure when he’ll get a chance to follow his mining dreams.

“I cannot do it right now, I have a family to take care of,” he said.

“Maybe I will do it as retirement work.”

Keun was slicing cucumber into thin, elegant slices as he spoke.

Although it’s not his dream job, there’s still an art to making sushi, he said.

“It involves knife skills and is about presentation.”

And Keun likes it.

He has regular customers, and some even bring their own Tupperware, to cut out the Styrofoam packaging when they bring their sushi back to the office.

“You have to do something for a living,” he said.

When he gets the chance, Keun still plans to read up on Yukon mining and study local maps.

“I have to take some classes and courses on placer mining to learn how to do it,” he said.

“And I’d like to do some field prospecting too.

“Maybe even stake a claim.”

Oishi Sushi is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays.

Call 668-7570 to place an order, or head upstairs above Shopper’s on Main Street to sit at the lunch counter.

Contact Genesee Keevil at