Edward Lee doesn’t cook much anymore. Not in restaurants, anyway. The “Top Chef” contestant and repeat James Beard Award finalist may be a culinary star on the rise, but when asked if we could follow him around for a taste of what he does, the man behind 610 Magnolia and MilkWood tells us he doesn’t really have a job at either restaurant.
“I float around and make sure things stay interesting. I’m the go-fer when we run out of fava beans,” Lee says. “I do all the intangible stuff. You’re more than welcome to see my world of constant phone calls and arguing with people. That or we can go to the gun range.”
Keeping things interesting means a schedule that begins at the crack of dawn and ends around midnight. Lee tries to downplay his role, but his busy days here are a rotating mix of menu-concepting, marketing, product design, traveling and, on the night we catch up with him at MilkWood, finishing an article for Food & Wine Magazine.
Sitting around making beautiful food isn’t enough for Lee, who says he’s become addicted to the adventure of opening businesses, giving back to his community, doing TV and writing about food. Addicted and adventure are themes the chef cites often, especially when talking about life in Louisville — home is another.
When the curtain goes up at the adjacent Actors Theatre and service at MilkWood settles a bit, Lee talks about his slow conversion from serving lychee martinis and Kalbi to intoxicated dotcom tycoons on Manhattan’s Mott Street to hanging out in duck blinds, sipping a warming bourbon before sunrise with his new Kentucky neighbors.
“I don’t want to demean this and call it an experiment, but I grew up in America and knew nothing about it. New York is not America — it’s its own special thing. I always thought, why the fuck do people tailgate? Why do people hunt? NASCAR? Really? But if that many people do something, there’s got to be something to it. You go and then you get it.”
Lee adds, “You’re gonna watch 12 horses run in a circle, one’s going to win, so what?! Of course, I go (to the Derby) and was up on my chair! That’s part of what I’m addicted to. Being down here and doing all these things.”
It was the Kentucky Derby that kicked off Lee’s affection for Louisville, “a week that changed his life forever,” he writes. During a road trip here about a decade ago, Lee says there were certain spots and people who made him feel as if he’d arrived home. One of them was Eddie Garber, the former 610 Magnolia owner who Lee lovingly describes as a “crotchety, old Jewish man with all the trimmings.” More noteworthy is Garber’s eye for talent and gift for persuasion.
The writer Joan Didion may have described a New Yorker’s disillusionment best as a seductive, yet unfulfilled whisper in your ear. Lee writes about his waning SoHo days with a similar disenchantment and, like Didion, made the decision to reinvent himself in a warmer place. The talented but lagging chef eventually accepted Garber’s offer to take the reins at 610 and has been in a trot ever since.
Reading and listening to Lee, his life in Kentucky is centered on good food and drink, good friends and an expanding family. He still cherishes Derbytime, and this one will be extra special because of the new baby set to drop into his life. When he talks about this, it’s unclear whether he means the baby girl he and wife Dianne are expecting in early May (their first) or his debut cookbook, “Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen.”
We make plans to discuss both events later in the week, in the end deciding against the gun range, duck hunting, catfish noodling and a James Beard dinner in Nashville.
I get the sense that Chef Lee doesn’t want me here. He basically says as much. We’re prepping for a cooking demo geared toward struggling mothers and their children in Louisville’s West End. The lesson will include a dinner comprised of recipes from Lee’s new book — Bourbon & Coke Meatloaf, minus the whiskey, and Roasted Okra & Cumin Cauliflower Salad.
Lee commits to these evenings twice a month, funds them out of pocket and, until today, refuses to publicize them. He’s the type of guy who prefers to pay it forward with action rather than a checkbook and resists self-congratulatory tweets when he does so. Lee also discourages sponsors who wish to drape their advertising over these dinners.
“The definition of charity is that you give something,” he says. “If you put up a banner and hand out pamphlets, you didn’t give. You’re doing a business deal.”
The intimacy of these gymnasium dinners and meeting the families is another part of Louisville that Lee has become addicted to. It’s not about his celebrity, he says, but something he just loves to do.
He allows me to tag along when I offer to pitch in and agree to leave my camera in the car. Most of these families are poor, and Lee sees no reason to remind them of that. He puts me to work, breaking a half-dozen heads of cauliflower into tiny florets, shaving 50 carrots down to feather-sized strips for a mango salad, and mandolinning radishes into razor-thin discs.
I grow knife-shy watching Lee dismantle a bushel of Granny Smiths into precise slivers. They appear machine-cut. He delicately and swiftly places these atop several trays of apple crumble, forming an Art Deco, fan-like pattern. It’s ironic that, given the many different hats he currently wears, this is probably the most actual cooking Lee will do this month — at least until the next charity dinner.
It’s good to watch him in his natural habitat, and he agrees when I ask if this is one of the reasons he donates half of his Mondays to the cause. Mostly, he says, it’s the young people he feeds and educates at the Shawnee Community Center. Lee brings up one student in particular who once picked up a lime and asked what it was.
“It breaks my heart,” Lee says. “And then there was this 13-year-old who didn’t know nothing from nobody, who says, ‘I want to be a pastry chef. I like to bake!’”
Lee is working on internships for those kids with fire in their eyes but is realistic when noting that 90 percent of the attendees are here because they need a free meal. This is confirmed when we reach the gym, an expansive, broken-in room that — with 360 degrees of inspirational messages spray-painted around the basketball court — must bring the chef back to his graffiti days in 1980s NYC.
The same four or five hands go up each time Lee asks for a volunteer. A majority of attendees seem to be biding their time until meatloaf. Lee, who is not here to find the next “Top Chef” or recruit kitchen help, is unfazed. He moves through his demo, offering tips on how to save money at the grocery, properly clean mushrooms and sneak whole grain into your diet, swapping the breadcrumbs in your meatloaf for oatmeal. As he hits his stride, he gets a number of heads nodding, even nutritional questions from a few moms.
During dinner, Lee asks one kid what was her favorite dish. “The toast,” she answers. You can’t help but smile. When I get home and take the day’s inventory, I smile again. I feel pretty great about all that cauliflower I broke up and the people who got fed. Moved by Chef Lee’s example of anonymous charity (he’s also done these demos at youth correctional facilities), I consider leaving our night’s work out of my story. In the end, I can’t do it. I need the words.
We mix with an entirely different set a couple of nights later at a $65-a-plate shindig. It’s a perfect night in Old Louisville, touched by wafts of whiskey, roasted ham and strains of Americana fiddle. The spread is definitely elevated a few notches above Monday’s fare, but prepared with an equal expenditure of love.
Ed Lee is holding the dinner at 610’s Wine Studio in honor of the food writers Matt and Ted Lee, who are in Louisville to promote their third cookbook, “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.” It isn’t long before author Matt delights the well-heeled crowd with some lines about the food town from which he hails: “Charleston is the type of place where people keep an oyster knife in the glove box of their car, because they never want to be left short.”
Matt’s younger brother Ted talks about the nature of their friendship with Ed, who first reached out while the Lee brothers were writing for GQ, Martha Stewart Living and The New York Times. Ed would send care packages with new finds that excited him, like shaved Tonka beans and cedar paper. These brothers-from-another have been trading secrets ever since.
It’s a friendship not unlike many that Ed Lee has forged with advocates and arbiters of Southern cuisine. We spoke about these chef friends, the niches they’ve carved out, and how each puzzle piece informs a larger idea of a new Southern kitchen: Sean Brock from Husk (Charleston), Chef Bryan Caswell from Reef (Houston), Ashley Christensen of Poole’s and Beasley’s Chicken & Honey in Raleigh, and Matt and Ted Lee are just some of them.
“There’s a group trying to redefine what the South means,” Lee says. “I think they all have their niche, and the Lee brothers are trying to redefine what Southern home cooking is. Their recipes are pretty close to tradition, they just find a way to contemporize, a new flavor or presentation, and suddenly it’s cool. Southern food is enjoying a unique renaissance after being in a slumber for a long time. These chefs are a part of it.”
I sip on one of the Lee brothers’ Rock and Rye cocktails with Amy Evans, an oral historian from the Southern Foodways Alliance and a University of Mississippi professor who’s made the seven-hour drive from Oxford, Miss. She’s here to see “the three Lees,” eat an amazing meal, and maybe sneak off to Germantown for a couple of drafts at Check’s. I ask if there’s anything more “New South” than a Korean kid from Brooklyn concocting “Country Ham Pho” and “Green Tomato Kimchi.”
Evans says that Lee (who sponsors two diversity scholarships at the University of Mississippi) speaks to the central mission of the Southern Foodways Alliance: to celebrate the diverse food cultures of a changing South. Evans groups Lee in with other new-to-the-South chefs like Monterrey, Mexico-native Eddie Hernandez, who’s doing Fried Chicken Tacos and Mexican-style Collards at Taqueria del Sol in Atlanta.
“People are coming to the South with a new appreciation for old things. These chefs are spinning the tried and true their own way and making it new again. It’s ingredient driven and not complicated,” Evans says. “New doesn’t have to mean complicated, just real. And Ed is doing that.”
Ted Lee echoes this, adding that the new immigrant communities throughout the South are the future of its cuisine. He nearly squeals when mentioning Atlanta’s Heirloom Market BBQ, run by Cody Taylor, a self-proclaimed Tennessee hillbilly, and wife, Jiyeon Lee, a 1980s Korean pop star, who introduced Heirloom’s traditional barbecue to an Asian pantry of gochujang chile paste and kimchi slaw.
“There’s an advantage to preservation and learning the oral histories, knowing what happened through the centuries. But Southern cooking is a living art. It doesn’t exist under glass,” says Ted Lee. “There are so many ways to be a Southerner, and that’s what excites me about being here now. We’ve got a good handle on where we’ve been but are focused on the future.”
Ed Lee arrives right on cue with a bowl of Edamame & Boiled Peanuts, a Japan-meets-American-South riff typical of his new book. The expectant father is buoyant and less intense when hosting and not in the kitchen. He giddily launches into shtick on the craziness of his upcoming book tour, simultaneous home renovations, and how he can’t stop buying baby stuff.
“Baby companies are evil and I don’t care; my baby does not need another pair of socks! She already has a dresser full. But I’ll see one with a little elephant and little giraffe, and it’s so fucking adorable!”
Asked how having a daughter will affect the work he does, Lee responds, “The answer is I don’t have an answer. For better or worse, my parents were, like, OK, you’re here. Whatever. Go occupy yourself. There were no car seats. It was very old school. Obviously, this is going to be an important thing, but neither of us intend to drop our careers.”
As the night wears on, it comes out that I’ve read an early draft of “Smoke & Pickles.” Everyone wants to know about it. Ted Lee indicates that enthusiasm for the book has reached beyond Louisville.
“We’ve been on this five-week tour, and book sellers will be, like, ‘Have you seen Ed Lee’s book? I got the galley, and the fried chicken is out of control!’”
Ted asks what I think of the book, so I tell him.
Cabbage patch kids
“Smoke & Pickles” satisfies the first rule of any good cookbook; it makes you want to shop for fun, sometimes strange ingredients and do new things to them. Its 130 recipes will also get you rethinking techniques you’ve executed successfully a thousand times. If you think you’ve mastered staples like rice, stock and chicken, Lee may get you experimenting again, as well as considering fanciful ideas like strawberry ketchup, cashew gravy and braised mustard seeds.
And then there’s bacon — bacon pate, bacon candy and lamb bacon.
“Smoke & Pickles” also provides the aspirational concepts you’ll never perfect, or for that matter try, but still dream about. Few of us will ever jerry-rig a stockpot into a stovetop smoker or purchase a spare refrigerator to do a 66-day cure on a Leg of Lamb Prosciutto. But after reading lines like, “You’ll look like a charcuterie god when you serve this tableside to your guests,” you may start daydreaming about yard sales and used $40 fridges.
At the same time, Lee gets us to reconsider pedestrian dishes we may not have thought of in a while — the humble meatloaf, for instance — while also stressing the importance of foreign, funky ingredients that, once you get a handle on, you’ll wonder how you ever cooked without — like miso paste and fish sauce.
The book is peppered with helpful pop-up tips (cilantro stems have the most flavor), introductions to Lee’s farm-to-table purveyors, and cute kitchen superstitions from both Korea (“If you eat lying down, you will be reincarnated as a cow”) and the South (“Don’t throw away eggshells until your cake finishes baking”).
Lee’s recipes, which tend to explore the smoky, pickled, sweet and tangy overlap of Korean and Southern cooking (don’t call it “fusion”), succeed in telling the story of this chef. But at the start of each chapter, the author supplements this delicious narrative with candid glimpses into his world. The loveliest of these tales and the section that best ties together Lee’s life, love and food is perhaps “Pickles & Matrimony.”
In addition to the chapter’s tantalizing kimchi recipes, we’re introduced to wife Dianne and the charming cabbage connection that fuses two divergent family histories. Before bringing his intended to Brooklyn to meet his parents, Lee instructs Dianne that, no matter how tense or awkward things get, just keep eating kimchi. Dianne follows this advice and manages to win the Lees over. Later on in Indiana, when Ed asks for the blessing of Dianne’s German-Catholic parents, it’s respect for the household’s beloved sauerkraut that helps a future son-in-law get in Mom’s good graces.
It’s snapshots like these and wide-open views into Lee’s Brooklyn upbringing, grandmother’s cooking and pronouncements of Kentucky-love that turn “Smoke & Pickles” into a cover-to-cover read that is one-third cookbook, one-third memoir and one-third response to that age-old question: Why Louisville?
Chef Edward Lee will sign copies of “Smoke & Pickles” at 7p.m. on Thursday, April 25, at Carmichael’s Bookstore, 2720 Frankfort Ave.