By Deena Douara Karim
Behind Lee’s Ghee artisanal line is Lee Dares, a former model with a penchant for healthy food and a drive to follow her own path.
For the uninitiated, ghee is a thick, rich cooking agent traditionally used across South Asia and the Middle East in the same way butter and oils are used elsewhere.
Ghee has long been demonized for its high-fat content and relegated to large tin cans sold in “ethnic aisles” of select grocery stores. But recently clarified butter has been embraced by foodies and reframed as a healthy, low-lactose alternative to more-common options.
“For a long time people thought that butter and saturated fat caused heart disease and high cholesterol, but a lot of research now is showing that isn’t the case and that sugar is the real culprit,” says Lee. “Ghee contains fatty acids that protect against heart disease and can actually help you lose weight.”
Lee also touts ghee’s nutty, caramelized flavour, its ease of use and higher smoke point.
The entrepreneur and her company may be young, but it’s been a long journey, nevertheless.
Lee began modeling at age 14 and by the time she was 20, she was looking for more out of life. “I wasn’t happy at all,” she recalls.
“Having done things differently than my peers, I probably felt more entrepreneurial. I knew I wasn’t going to take a linear path and I felt freedom to do what I wanted to do after I quit modelling.
“I always knew I was on my path but other people didn’t necessarily see that. I had to constantly convince people that what I was doing was OK, that I was exploring, and that I would eventually settle down . . . but I knew I had to go on this journey.”
Lee's interest in nutrition led her to study farming in Ontario and permaculture in the U.S. before heading to India to study organic farming practices under a prominent environmental activist. Lee says living in India allowed her to delve deeper into her interest in meditation, yoga and Ayurveda. While there, she made ghee with the local women.
She says what’s sold in stores here – large cans of it – is sometimes diluted, coloured and sourced from anywhere in the world. Lee’s Ghee, on the other hand, is made in smaller batches.
“I pay a lot of attention to quality, source of ingredients and method of preparation. I make my ghee over low heat and it takes a lot longer, so a small batch can take eight hours to reach completion. Then it’s cooled and packaged then mixed with spices and herbs… You can’t mass produce my ghee.”
There’s virtually no dish Lee can’t imagine ghee enhancing: a goat cheese and spinach omelet, a vegetable curry with coconut sauce, homemade banana bread — “it’s ridiculously delicious.”
Lee’s Ghee is sold at nearly 40 retailers and at farmer’s markets across Toronto. Those markets are more than a venue, they are community.
“It’s great to be in a place that’s so receptive to what I’m doing,” she says. “I’ve developed a sense of community here that I’ve never felt before, just from being in the food business. Everyone’s been so helpful and there’s an amazing community of local food entrepreneurs that I’m really grateful to be a part of.”
“The fact I’m in a city with so many health food stores and so many farmer’s markets is incredible.”
More formally, Lee received support from Futurpreneur and some training through Enterprise Toronto.
Expect Lee’s Ghee retailers to jump in number after an appearance on Dragon’s Den, airing early November.