Brothers Matt and Ted Lee grew up in Charleston, South Carolina but attended colleges in Massachusetts. They so missed the foods from back home that they founded The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, a mail-order Southern food company. When an editor of Travel + Leisure magazine asked them to write a story about road-tripping their home state in search of great grub, they embarked on a second career as food journalists and cookbook authors. They’ve published three award-winning Southern cookbooks, written for food magazines galore, and on television, they’ve sounded off about restaurant dishes for all seven seasons of Unique Eats on the Cooking Channel. And the last three years they’ve been teaching chefs how to crack the publishing nut in Cookbook Boot Camp, an intensive two days in Charleston. We talk with the Lee brothers about the lure of Lowcountry and what makes a successful cookbook.
AndrewZimmern.com: You guys have done so many jobs in the food world. Why don’t you have a restaurant?
Matt Lee: Ha! We’ve worked entry-level jobs in enough restaurants to know we never wanted to work that hard.
Ted Lee: We are home cooks, pure and simple; that is how we got into the kitchen and that is our perspective on Charleston, a place with a very deep and longstanding home-cooking tradition. We love to play around in the kitchen, to develop recipes, but often for fun and inspiration we turn to our collection of old American cookbooks—we have a pretty large stash—and find that we often turn up an idea, ingredient or food concept that feels totally original and fresh.
AZ.com: Charleston—one of my favorite cities in this country, by the way—has been smoking hot in the last few years, a prime destination, why do you think that is?
ML: The Lowcountry has a nice combination of factors in its favor, the proximity to the ocean, the rich layers of history, the preserved old architecture that makes it such a colorful and intoxicating experience to be here, just to walk the city’s streets.
TL: And from a cooking perspective, the wealth of raw materials. We’re within the southern end of the native range of many northern species and the northern end of many southern, tropical species and so the bounty of plants and fish that are available to a home cook and a restaurant chef here are maximized. We’ve got bananas and asparagus, triggerfish and shad.
AZ.com: Sea critters and shellfish especially—the shrimp, blue crab, oysters—are one of the real joys of being in Charleston. How do you source the good stuff?
TL: You walk to the water and catch it yourself! Check out the Charleston episode of Bizarre Foods—you throw a mean cast net.
ML: Or, even better, drive to a working pier and buy it fresh off the boat that caught it. That’s something you can do in only a few places on the Eastern seaboard these days. Shem Creek, just across the Cooper River from downtown, has a nice working fleet. We try whenever possible to support our local fishermen and women, because catching wild fish and shellfish sustainably in this environment and this market—flooded with cheap, frozen, farmed seafood from 9,000 miles away—is a supreme challenge.
TL: Fishing makes restaurant work seem like pattycake.
AZ.com: Where did this Cookbook Boot Camp idea come about?
ML: It came about by demand, really. Chefs kept asking us if they could “pick our brains” about what it would take to make their cookbook idea a reality. And we were sympathetic because there’s no one out there demystifying the publishing process. So we’d have to break it down for them that it takes more than a brain-picking to begin this journey, it’s really a series of very serious questions you have to ask yourself: What concept suits me best? Do I need assistance with the recipes or the writing (or both)? Is my goal money or glory? Is the book about me or the restaurant?
TL: So we set it up like a writing workshop: we sit around in a group for two days and we do writing exercises, evaluate their concepts and ideas, we address the test-kitchen part of cookbook publishing, design and photography decisions, and the elements that make a great proposal. By the end, each chef has the vision, the industry know-how and the tools to create the proposal.
ML: And a sore ass—the chefs all say sitting down for eight hours is the most grueling thing they’ve done in decades!
AZ.com: Does any chef have a prayer of getting a cookbook published these days?
TL: Absolutely! Amid all the gloomy forecasts in the book world, the cookbook category has been a bright spot and continues to hold strong in the marketplace because when they’re great, they represent amazing value. Take any recent classic—Zuni Café Cookbook, say, or Dorie Greenspan’s Baking. Either of those books will change your kitchen game forever in so many ways (and they’re beautiful objects besides!). And each of those books costs roughly the price of a couple negronis. Let that sink in for a minute…
ML: If a chef is committed to writing a book that takes its place among the classics and can deliver an irresistible proposal, he or she will find a publisher. It’s that simple.
TL: Our camper Paul Fehribach, the chef at Big Jones in Chicago, recently signed a two-book deal with University of Chicago Press.
AZ.com: What about ebooks?
TL: Our last two books were both published as ebooks and it’s awesome that the ebook edition is out there. But have we ever signed an ebook? Or given one as a gift? We learned from readers we encountered on our book tours that an ebook edition is a useful complement to the hardcover you’ve already got and don’t want to destroy—the one you can take with you on your iPad when you’re cooking at a friend’s house. Or, alternately, a low-cost way of discovering whether you want to spend the money on the hardcover.
ML: There are terrific examples of cookbooks that began as ebooks for sure, but even those—Michael Ruhlman’s Schmaltz is an awesome example—often end up as a hardcover, in the same way that blogs typically end up as cookbooks, between paper boards. There’s something about the enduring physical sensation of a book that’s completely in tune with the physical world of the kitchen. So we always advise rocking the hardcover with simultaneous ebook publication.
AZ.com: What’s the recipe for a successful cookbook?
TL: We always say the sure model for success is to publish the highest quality cookbook you can possibly create and hope that it achieves that classic status, the golden plateau where the abundance of fascinating stories and information, the magical, easy-to-replicate recipes and the scintillating photos create such strong word of mouth that the book sells itself for 40+ years.
ML: Unless you’re on TV, in which case you can make a crappy book and it will probably still be a smash hit!
TL: Restaurant chefs have a natural advantage in publishing, which is that they can sell books out of their restaurant—if they can average about 10 books a day, that puts the cookbook instantly into contention for bestseller status.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
ML: More hachiya persimmons than I know what to do with. And, since I have little boys, about every semisoft dairy product known to man, including labneh and clotted cream.
TL: Two quarts of a posole and collards stew I made with pork broth. A whole head of green cabbage. A pint container of pomegranate seeds I picked from a pomegranate yesterday that I’m saving to make that eggplant dish from the cover of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. But I keep eating them from the container so I may not have enough…
About Matt and Ted Lee
Siblings Matt Lee and Ted Lee were raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and after college found themselves struggling to make ends meet in New York City. They tried, without much luck, to sell boiled peanuts to bars and restaurants, but the mail-order business they founded on the rebound—selling boiled peanuts and other southern foods to expatriate southerners around the country—hit a groove, and they set up shop full-time back in Charleston, shipping grits, greens and peanuts around the globe from an old hotel room.
The writing in their catalogue attracted the attention of editors back in the Big Apple, and when Travel + Leisure asked them to write a story about road-tripping their home state in search of great food, they embarked on a second career as food and travel journalists. They have written regularly for The New York Times, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Martha Stewart Living, and are have been contributing editors at Travel + Leisure since 2001. Their three cookbooks, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (2007), and The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern (2009) and The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (2013) have collectively won six James Beard and IACP Awards.
The Lee Bros. are currently on-air commentators for The Cooking Channel show Unique Eats. In 2012, they began the first Cookbook Boot Camp, and provide solutions in chef development, culinary programming and food strategy for the hospitality, travel, and real estate industries.
Photographs by Squire Fox.