Culture: Edward Lee — Louisville’s top chef
Between 2003 and 2009, Chef Edward Lee and his Old Louisville restaurant, 610 Magnolia, was one of the worst-kept dining secrets in the region. The farm-to-table pioneer, a multiple James Beard Award semifinalist, saw his stock rise after a 16-page profile in Gourmet magazine, followed by a winning appearance on “Iron Chef America.” He’s now an ongoing competitor on Bravo’s “Top Chef” (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.). Regardless of whether he wins the $100,000 grand prize or is this season’s “too soon!” cut, Lee’s role on the popular program can only help the rest of the country see that Louisville has a lot more to offer than KFC.
LEO: Why “Top Chef,” as opposed to the 800 other food programs on now?
Edward Lee: That’s easy: Just look at the caliber of chefs competing. It’s not home cooks or diner owners trying to get their 15 minutes of fame. “Top Chef” draws the best of the best because there’s a legitimacy that other shows just don’t have. Now, I did do “Iron Chef” and win, but that was last year. I wanted to compete against the brightest up-and-coming chefs in the country. I love being in that pressure cooker and pushing myself to see what I can accomplish under the most unpredictable situations.
LEO: Did you know any of the other cheftestants prior to taping?
EL: I had heard of some of them. Many have a great reputation in the industry. It was fun to meet and compete against them. The ones I didn’t know, well, I think we’re on a first name basis now.
LEO: Of all the prior cast members, do you have any personal favorites — either due to abilities or personalities?
EL: I don’t have a favorite — I respect every past chef that had the gumption to put their careers on the line in front of a national audience. It ain’t easy.
LEO: How did you feel about it being in Texas, and in three different cities?
EL: Awesome. You know, I’m a huge Townes Van Zandt fan, who was from Texas, and I’d never been to Texas before, so it was a real treat for me. Now I get what it means when people say “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” All the while I’ve got “Pancho and Lefty” in my head and my knife pack under my arm. That was surreal.
LEO: How do you feel about Louisville’s food scene? There have been a slew of interesting restaurants (Harvest, Eiderdown, Hillbilly Tea, Hammerheads, etc.) that have opened since the recession began. Why — or how — do you think that has happened?
EL: Independent restaurants are generally immune to the ups and downs of a market-based economy. If you make good food and offer a value product, people will come in good times or bad. Louisville’s food scene is exciting and ambitious. I’m proud to be a part of it. But there’s still room to get better, more innovative, and revive old traditions. I’d love to see a kick-ass soul food restaurant in this town.
LEO: Do you have any plans for a new restaurant anytime soon?
EL: Maybe …
LEO: Your former chef de cuisine, Gabe Sowder, has been operating the mobile Taco Punk operation, which will soon also become a restaurant. Do you feel like you’ve gone from a young upstart to a mentor and established national figure?
EL: I don’t think that’s for me to say. I do what I do; I make mistakes, I accomplish certain goals, I still have dreams. I still love every ounce of this business. This business is a marathon, not a race. I just hope I’m somewhere at the top when all is said and done.
LEO: Do you think your career would have gone in this direction if Gourmet had folded three months earlier?
EL: As important as that Gourmet article was, I have to believe that my career wasn’t based on a coincidence. I was cooking my ass off before the article came out and have been ever since. So, yes, I believe that hard work and dedication does eventually reap rewards despite what happens in the media world. Having said that, I’m sure glad as hell that Gourmet didn’t fold earlier.