Chef Edward Lee’s name is well known around Louisville. His restaurants, 610 Magnolia, Milkwood (which closed to become the McAtee Community Kitchen), and now, NAMI Korean Steakhouse (835 E Main St. STE. 106), have brought joy and great dining experiences to many. With the recently opened NAMI, Chef Lee is doing something that he hasn’t done since pre-9/11. He’s opening a Korean restaurant. For Lee, who is Korean American, NAMI is a full circle moment bringing him home to flavors he knew as a child and allowing him to share that cuisine with a city that he’s grown to love.
LEO caught up with Chef Lee and asked him about his journey from being a kid born in and learning about flavor in New York City to finding Louisville and making it his home.
LEO Weekly: You were born in Brooklyn, how was growing up in NYC and how did that influence your love for cooking? Any single moment with food that stands out as a pivotal moment?
Chef Edward Lee: I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn. It was a rough neighborhood but I was always surrounded by the sights and sounds and smells of so many different cuisines from Italian to Jewish to Jamaican to Indian and so on. I grew up in a world where each single block was a different culture and it was a seamless journey to blend all of it together in my mind as I started to explore those foods. I remember my mom would take me to the Jamaican spice shop because that was the only place that sold ground chili peppers that resembled the Korean chili flakes that she needed for her cooking. She never bought anything else from that shop but the chili but for me, it was entering a world of things like jerk spice and goat meat and patties that triggered my curiosity for this food that was so unfamiliar with the food we ate at home. As soon as I was old enough, I would start to explore that curiosity and I have never looked back.
What other factors helped you decide a life of exploring cuisine was for you?
I never really thought about anything else. By the time I was 11 or 12, I knew I wanted to be a chef. I told my parents. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what it really meant to be a chef. But I knew it was something I wanted to chase. We grew up in a very working class neighborhood. It was humble and simple. Whenever we rode the subway, I could see the tall skyscrapers in Manhattan through the subway windows and it was a world that represented wealth and glamour and prosperity for me. It was so close yet so far away. To me, the world of fine dining and fancy restaurants was a way for me to get closer to that world. As soon as I was old enough, I got my first job as a busboy at a fancy restaurant on 5th Ave. in Manhattan and on my second day at work, I got to bring a coffee to Michelle Pfieffer who was at the peak of her popularity then. I remember going home that night thinking I would never do anything else in life other than work in restaurants.
Tell me more about NAMI.
It is my interpretation of a modern Korean steakhouse. It is a lot of the classics of Korean food but viewed through my lens. Not all the food is traditional but the flavors are as authentic as what I remember from my childhood about what I loved about my home cooked meals. We have grill tables if you want to cook your own Korean BBQ but we have standard tables too if you would rather have us grill the meats for you. We also have a private karaoke room that is a lot of fun. I am proud to be working with Executive Chef Breanna Baker who runs the kitchen and Yeon-Hee Chung, formerly of Charim, who makes all our kimchi and banchan recipes.
Is this your first Korean restaurant?
Actually, my very first restaurant I opened in downtown Manhattan when I was 25 was a progressive fusion Korean restaurant. It was very popular and busy. I had it for four years when 9-11 happened and I had to close the restaurant. I took some time off after that to road trip around America, and that is how I ended up in Louisville for the Derby and working at 610 Magnolia under the helm of the former owner, Eddie Garber. It was the start of a beautiful life that I chose for myself in Kentucky. So 20 years after I left NYC, I have decided that it is time to do a Korean spot in Louisville. It is kinda full circle for me and it just feels right. .
I find food a great way to understand culture…what do you like to discover through food?
Everything. I see everything through a lens of food. Culture, rituals, wisdom, etiquette, all of this is played out through food. If you really study the history and value system of a culture’s food, you can learn so much from it. And on a micro level, I can tell exactly what kind of person you are by how you eat. I can tell if I like you or not, whether we will be friends or not just from the food choices you make. It reveals so much about a person.
Why is food a great bridge for people to find understanding?
I always say, it is impossible to hate when you are eating good food. That is why we dine with family, with friends, with our community. The dinner table is more than just a place for sustenance. It is where we commune with others and find a common place to be civil and polite and laugh and love even when we disagree with each other. It is important we don’t lose that human connection in the face of an increasingly high tech world where we only communicate with each other through our phones and devices.
Tell me more about some of your initiatives including A Taste for Life.
The LEE Initiative is our non-profit with co-founder Lindsey Ofcacek. We work on issues of equity and diversity, which include everything from mentorship programs to scholarships to relief meals to continuing education. We are about to embark on a new project in D.C., which will launch by the end of this year where we will partner with a University to do research on sustainability issues in the restaurant industry. It will be our most ambitious project to date and something that we believe will really help the country’s independent restaurants to navigate through a more sustainable world going forward.