The Food-Obsessed World of Edward Lee
A native New Yorker turned Louisville culinary ambassador, chef Edward Lee stars in the brand new third season of Mind of a Chef—the Emmy-winning PBS series, narrated by executive producer Anthony Bourdain, that delves deep into the inspirations and philosophies of renowned chefs. Lee’s brilliant cooking at his acclaimed 610 Magnolia has landed him nominations for Best Chef: Southeast from the James Beard Foundation for the past four years. He’s also been on Top Chef and Iron Chef, published a bold cookbook Smoke & Pickles, and developed a signature small batch bourbon with Jefferson’s Reserve called Chef’s Collaboration Blend. His latest venture is MilkWood, a more casual restaurant in Louisville’s Actor’s Theater that looks at traditional Southern comfort food through an Asian lens. We talk with Lee about his mind-blowing discoveries on Mind of a Chef, filming in Argentina and the Southern food renaissance.
AndrewZimmern.com: For those that haven’t seen it, what is Mind of a Chef about and why is it appealing for you?
Edward Lee: It’s a show that delves deep into the influences and inspirations of a chef, edited into eight 30 minute episodes. It’s collaborative in every sense of the word and that’s a dream come true. I got to work with a badass tight knit crew that I have the utmost respect for. We would literally get up each morning and figure out how the day would unfold together. It was exhilarating to be a part of that process.
AZ.com: Beyond your restaurants in Kentucky, where did you travel to film this season? How did you decide on these destinations?
EL: NYC, Houston and Argentina. NYC is my roots so that was an obvious one. Houston is a really complex place. Like Louisville, it straddles several worlds, from the Southern identity to an immigrant frontier culture to a Gulf Coast port city. Those identities create tension and beauty and some damn interesting food. Argentina was a dream for me. I’m always seduced by cooking with fire, from the coal cooking of Korean BBQ to the smokehouses of the American South to the open fire cooking that is the national cuisine of Argentina. It’s a very ancient form of cooking and I wanted to see how their techniques differ from the forms of fire cooking that I’m more familiar with. Plus, I’d never been to Argentina so that was fun.
AZ.com: In the trailer for this season you say: “I’m not looking for a recipe, I’m not looking to be an anthropologist, I’m just looking for something I know I haven’t eaten before and I know I haven’t seen before.” What did you find?
EL: I found out how easy it is to blow my mind. I saw and tasted so many things that I didn’t think would be new to me and yet I found myself constantly in awe and scratching my head at the same time. I have made and eaten red-eye gravy hundreds of times with varying degrees of adoration for it. All of a sudden Ashley Christensen comes into my kitchen and rocks out a version that tasted stunningly new and fresh and yet traditional at the same time. Sometimes we look under every rock and stone for the stuff that will surprise us when it can exist right at our feet the whole time.
AZ.com: What kind of new techniques or ingredients did you discover along the way that you’re excited to utilize in your restaurants?
EL: I’m always taken by the subtle things that make a world of difference in one’s cooking. In Argentina, I was surprised (and a bit incredulous) that Francis [Mallmann] would cook a whole lamb over an open fire without pre-salting the meat. We are always taught to salt and cure meats before beginning a low and slow cooking technique. But instead he made this saline water solution and with his cupped hand, would occasionally throw a fistful of it at the meat. It seemed completely counter-intuitive to everything I had ever learned. But it kept the meat moist and when the excess water hit the pit of open fire, the hissing coals told me that he was also regulating the heat of the fire this way. It was so primitive yet really brilliant. And the meat was the best lamb I’d ever had. So there. I learned something new. I may never cook lamb that way in my restaurant, but it definitely gives me a reason to pause and rethink the basic rules of how and when we salt our meats. That’s exciting to me.
AZ.com: How do the last few years look in the rear view mirror? Awards, more TV, more restaurants. You’ve been busy!
EL: Yeah, it’s been pretty non-stop. Like they always say, be careful what you wish for. I haven’t slept right in about two years but that’s a wonderful thing really, to be so exhausted because you’re doing the thing you love the most. I can’t really think of a better reason to lose sleep over. I can’t believe how fortunate I’ve been to have the community of chefs and personalities around me that are all dedicated to this notion of a meaningful food culture – and it has become so diverse now that it seems everyone’s on their own arc, creating this dense literature of food that is getting richer by the day. We are truly fortunate to be living and working in this tremendous discipline at this point in history.
AZ.com: Did your experience on Mind of a Chef change your goal setting for the next few years?
EL: Change is a big word, goal setting is an even bigger word. I tend to shy away from those things. If I had set upon a specific goal 10 years ago, I probably would not have ended up in Kentucky. But it has made me a different person. You can’t go through a process like this and come out the other end unchanged. I see things a bit more clearly, I appreciate my peers more than I ever did before, I realize how important it is to be a part of a community of chefs. I’m not much changed but I am more focused.
AZ.com: What’s so appealing about the foods of the Southeastern United States? There doesn’t seem to be any end to our fascination with them.
EL: There are so many things that had to happen simultaneously that led to this Southern Foodways renaissance, that if you step back for a moment to appreciate it, it seems like magic. You had to have this complicated history percolating underneath years of neglect, you had to have thinkers and writers, everyone from John Egerton to Ronni Lundy to John T. Edge to Virginia Willis and many many others who persisted in telling this multi-layered narrative about the lost foodways of the South. You had to have this intricate network of chefs, some born-and-bred in the South but many who were not, who decided (seemingly independently) that it was high time to celebrate the ingredients and traditions of their region, from Cajun culture to Appalachia to the Delta to the coastal shores and beyond. You needed visionaries like Glenn Roberts, you needed a Blackberry Farm. You needed cookbook authors who were willing to take a risk, you needed a galvanizing organization like the Southern Foodways Alliance to wrap its long arms around you like an endless hug. You needed farms to erupt and pigs to take center stage. You needed this little ole drink called bourbon to spread its healing powers over a thirsty community of southerners who would revive its popularity for a new generation of trenchermen. This is the appeal. We’re not looking at a relic through a magnifying glass. We are witnessing history as it happens around us. That is amazing stuff. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by it?
AZ.com: Name three young chefs working in your part of the world who diners should keep an eye on.
EL: Travis Milton in Richmond, Lisa Donovan in Nashville, Ryan Smith in Atlanta. They will do amazing things I’m sure.
AZ.com: What are the best three things you have eaten in last two weeks?
EL: I just returned from an intense road trip with my good friend Ronni Lundy through the eastern ridge of the Appalachian Mountains so it’s very fresh on my mind. Two things stood out: an incredible Chili Slaw Dog at Skeeter’s in Wytheville and the most unctuous pecan pie at The Beverley in Staunton, both in Virginia. Before that, I happened to be in Fennville, Michigan blending apple cider with Greg Hall and we drove through one of the orchards he gets his apples from. I picked a slightly under-ripe honey crisp from the tree and bit into it. Maybe it was because I was standing in that beautiful orchard or the sun was that perfect temperature that only happens once or twice all summer but it was one of the best darn apples I’d ever had in my life.
Watch a preview for Mind of a Chef Season 3:
About Edward Lee
One part Southern soul, one part Asian spice, and one part New York attitude, Chef Edward Lee is a Korean-American who grew up in Brooklyn, trained in NYC kitchens, and has spent the better part of a decade honing his vision at 610 Magnolia restaurant in Louisville, KY.
Lee’s adventure to Southern-cuisine eminence began in 2001 on a road trip to Louisville during the Kentucky Derby. He discovered a local gem of a restaurant called 610 Magnolia and spent the evenings cooking in the kitchen. He fell in love with his surroundings and within a year, he moved his life from NYC to Louisville, and into the dialogue of the blossoming New Southern food scene that would take shape around a handful of young and forward thinking chefs.
Lee’s culinary style draws inspiration from his Asian heritage, his New York training, and his embrace of the American South, coupled with the best ingredients from local farms. Lee’s innovative cuisine has twice earned him a finalist nomination for the James Beard Foundation Awards Best Chef: Southeast in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. He has been featured in Esquire, Bon Appétit, GQ, Gourmet among many other publications; won on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” was a favorite on “Top Chef: Texas, Season 9”; and has appeared on shows ranging from Cooking Channel’s “Foodography,” Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods America” to CBS’s “The Talk.” He will be the featured chef in Season 3 of Mind of a Chef to air on PBS in fall, 2014.
Lee’s career extends to writing credits as well, with articles published in Gastronomica, Esquire, Organic Gardening and many other journals. Lee’s self-authored cookbook, Smoke & Pickles, (Artisan Books, May 2013) chronicles his unconventional journey from the kitchens of Brooklyn to becoming a lauded Southern chef.
In addition to 610 Magnolia, Lee operates a special events dining room called The Wine Studio, which features cooking classes, wine tastings and guest chef dinners. MilkWood is Chef Lee’s newest venture. Located in the basement of the locally revered Actor’s Theater in downtown Louisville, MilkWood interprets the traditions of Southern comfort food with an Asian pantry. The menu features small plates and smoked meats, all personalized and creative versions of familiar classics in addition to an array of bourbon cocktails.
When he is not in his kitchen, Lee spends the rest of his time on his numerous collaborations. His signature blend with Jefferson’s Reserve called Chef’s Collaboration Blend is a luxury small batch bourbon he developed with Master Blender Trey Zoeller. He is also working with a Korean company to launch an organic fermented Korean hot sauce in spring of 2015.
Lee approaches his professional and culinary life with candor, humor, and—most importantly—the same spirit of adventure that was the original impetus for his success.