Chicago-area physical therapist makes chili oil his side hustle to honor family

ByJudy Hsu and Angela Chen WLS logo
Wednesday, May 1, 2024
Chicago-area physical therapist makes chili oil his side hustle
ABC7 Chicago is kicking off Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month with some heat: a Chicago-area man made CHILEE OIL a side hustle.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- ABC7 Chicago is celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and kicking it off with a little heat. A Chicago-area physical therapist has become a chili oil entrepreneur on the side.

Chili oil is a condiment widely used in Asian cooking.

And one local man is making his oil Chicago-style.

James Lee is a full-time physical therapist by day, and a chili oil entrepreneur on the side.

Lee is the owner and founder of CHILEE OIL, a passion project turned side-hustle run by him and his wife, Sufei. Chi stands for Chicago and Lee, his last name. His CHILEE OIL can be used on eggs, dumplings and a variety of food.

"Initially we never really thought that it would actually grow to be that big," Lee said. "We saw this as: passion, pandemic baby project for us."

"When I was in college, I really wanted to be in the tech startup world. It didn't really pan out, but I never imagined I would be part of a startup by making chili oil," his wife said.

The chili oil condiment represents his family. It's dedicated to his grandfather and influenced by his wife's Chinese cooking.

"He's primarily the reason why I'm in Chicago, the reason why our whole family from there came from South Korea and moved to Chicago," Lee said. "And so I really wanted to find just a way to honor him."

"One way I express my love towards my friends, my family is definitely through food," his wife said.

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Lee operates CHILEE OIL mostly by himself, personally making and delivering each batch. And his wife helps with social media.

"I'm my own distributor at this point, for now," Lee said.

Chili oil has been a hot topic in recent headlines.

Celebrity chef David Chang, known for the national brand Momofuku, attempted to patent the words "chili crunch," a common condiment in Asian cuisine.

This attempt brought some heat toward Chang, with smaller businesses feeling "disheartened."

But Lee views the controversy as an opportunity.

"I'm really happy that it happened because it brought to light a lot of different companies out there that's making chili crisp," he said.

Lee's condiment is growing in popularity. It can be found in stores and restaurants throughout Chicago. And Lee hopes to keep it local.

"I definitely hope that it doesn't just explode into a size where, like, you just begin to, like, lose focus on the people around you. So maybe I'll always stay small," Lee said.

CHILEE OIL is available in stores throughout the area or online. Visit for more information.