We explore the significant impact the New York City-based barista and latte artist made on the specialty-coffee community.
BY CHRIS RYAN
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo courtesy of Pacific Barista Series
In the summer of 2019, La Marzocco USA brought its Crush the Rush 2 competition to New York City as part of a nationwide tour. Competition slots filled up quickly for the NYC event, but among those grabbing a spot was Team Never Lose That Smile, composed of Christina Lee, her boyfriend Ujae Lee, and their friend—a towering, bespectacled barista named Daniel Lee.
After advancing through the preliminary rounds, the team made it to the final eight, and that’s when the nerves started to kick in. “Every time I got really anxious, it was Daniel who was by my side,” Christina remembers. “There was something really reassuring about his presence and it made me calm down. He made sure I did not lose my focus and told me everything would be OK.”
Sure enough, with Daniel in a leadership role, Team Never Lose That Smile conquered the competition and took first place. “He showed me true leadership is not putting yourself first,” Christina says. “It’s about setting a good example through one’s strong spirit and optimism, and transferring that energy into others to create better synergy within the team.”
This snapshot from three summers ago illuminates some of the unmistakable qualities about Daniel: Selflessness. Humility. Kindness. These were among the traits that made him an invaluable, beloved member of the specialty-coffee community, and that overshadowed even his impressive barista skills, which he regularly demonstrated behind the bar at cafés around New York, or with a pitcher of milk at latte art throwdowns.
On December 2, Daniel Lee passed away following a battle with cancer. He was 34.
Waiting for Coffee
Born and raised in New York City, Daniel achieved good marks in school, but was uncertain what he wanted to pursue for a career. He first studied to become a pharmacist at college, then decided to pivot to health management, which he earned his degree in. Though he settled on a field, it didn’t necessarily ignite his passion. “I don’t think it ever felt like it was a fit,” says his brother, Brian Lee. “The health management field is very competitive, and it never seemed to click for him.”
Trying to find his next steps, Daniel—a food lover and excited eater—dabbled in foodservice, helping a friend get a restaurant business off the ground. Then, in March 2016, Daniel had his aha moment when he attended Coffee Fest New York with his sister-in-law. Immediately, he knew he’d found his path. “After that, I could see that his eyes changed,” remembers Brian. “He showed a different kind of determination and passion for it.”
Daniel threw himself into specialty coffee, picking up shifts from his friends working in cafés, and learning the skills behind pouring latte art—and then practicing it for hours. “He took a very serious approach to coffee, meaning he highly valued everything about it, from the producing farm to the cup quality,” says his friend Lance Hedrick. Daniel’s Instagram page soon filled up not just with images of his latest pours, but with the hundreds of new friends he’d made in the coffee community. On Instagram, the Korean American Daniel went by the handle @keunamoo, which translates to “Big Tree” in Korean, and nodded at his unmissable 6’8” frame.
As a person who didn’t care for being in the spotlight, Daniel struggled with the attention his height brought him. But as he honed his latte art skills, made friends who shared his passion for pouring, and started competing in throwdowns, his awkwardness began to subside. “He needed a good-natured push to put himself out there, and coffee and the throwdowns did it,” says Brian. “It helped him feel more comfortable in his own skin.”
Artist, Teacher, Friend
Daniel’s barista work took him to cafés around New York City, with stints at Citizens of Bleecker, Two Hands, and other establishments. As his passion for coffee deepened, so did his interest in seeing the job of coffee worker taken more seriously. In 2019, he wrote on Instagram: “There is a shifting of paradigms, waves being made, a prejudice breaking inundation for this profession on the cusp of burgeoning forth. Coffee isn’t just some pragmatic product of convenience to convey a drug for productivity … it’s becoming a delight, to be enjoyed and savored, a craft, a specialty.”
And as Daniel’s barista skills heightened, he prioritized sharing his knowledge with others. “He had true skill as a latte artist, pouring incredible art but never boasting or flaunting his abilities,” says his friend Noah Goodman. “Beyond that, he even sought out ways to help others learn and become better baristas. He was always looking for a way to help, no matter the situation.” Adds Christina, “He always made time to teach new baristas about anything they wanted to know. He was never arrogant about his coffee knowledge, but was rather understanding and wanted to help everyone improve. I think that showed how much passion he had for working in coffee.”
Like many baristas, Daniel had to stop working in March 2020 when the pandemic shuttered retail businesses, and he lamented the loneliness of quarantine on his Instagram. But after getting vaccinated in spring 2021, he returned full bore, taking as many shifts as he could at New York cafés like Chateau Le Woof. “He was probably a workaholic, but that’s because that’s what he loved,” says Brian. “That was his element; that’s where he was comfortable.”
The Giving Tree
Daniel was diagnosed with metastatic colorectal cancer in early October. Two months later, he passed away.
The outpouring on social media was immediate, emotional, and widespread, as hundreds of friends shared their grief at losing Daniel so suddenly. For Brian and the Lee family, the coffee community’s love for Daniel has provided some light during an impossibly dark time. “I’ve just been blown away by the amount of people who said he changed their lives for the better,” Brian says. “The love and encouragement of those messages will last a lifetime.”
While his friends mourn the loss of Daniel, they’ve also been reflecting on the permanent stamp he made on them—particularly with his selflessness, which earned him a second nickname, The Giving Tree. “Daniel was always giving to others and not asking anything in return. He was such a good friend and role model to me, and taught me how to treat others with respect and stay humble forever,” says Christina. “Thank you Daniel for being you and teaching us how to be a better human being.” Adds Lance, “He was perhaps the most humble, kind, compassionate, empathetic, and loving human I have or ever will meet, within the coffee industry or without.”
As Brian reflects on his brother’s life, he asks that those who loved Daniel continue to enjoy great coffee and tip their baristas well, and savor delicious food as Daniel did. But his lasting message is to accomplish as much as we can in our lives, as they can be cut unexpectedly short. “We all think we have so much time; we really don’t,” Brian says. “Daniel regretted that he couldn’t do some of the things on his bucket list, and it was tough to see that. But I want to remind everyone that we should tackle our lives with as much gusto as possible and leave no regrets behind.”
Chateau Le Woof is hosting a holiday throwdown party on Thursday, December 30, dedicated to honoring and celebrating Daniel Lee. More information about the event is here.