Edward Lee
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Grilled In a Minute: Edward Lee

Julie Mautner / August 6th, 2012

Chef Edward Lee’s passion for food is surpassed only by his passion for adventure. Lee is a Korean-American who grew up in Brooklyn and trained in classical kitchens in Lyon and Annecy, France. In New York City, he worked for chef Frank Crispo, among others, and cooked modern French/Moroccan fare at Chez Es Saada. He opened his own restaurant, Clay, in 1998.

In 2001, Lee set out on a cross-country road trip and landed in Louisville during Derby Week, the busiest dining week of the year. He finagled an invite to work in the kitchen of 610 Magnolia and bought the restaurant less than a year later. He closed Clay and moved to Kentucky in 2003.

Lee’s innovative cuisine has earned impressive accolades. A James Beard finalist for Best Chef: Southeast in 2011 and 2012, he has been featured in Gourmet and Esquire, defeated Jose Garces on Iron Chef America, appeared on the CBS Early Show, and was recently seen on Top Chef: Texas. He’s a contributor to Gastronomica, Organic Gardening, and other publications, and is currently writing a cookbook of recipes and stories chronicling his unconventional personal and professional journey.

Lee says he draws culinary inspiration from his Asian heritage, his New York and French training, his embrace of the American South, the ingredients supplied by local farms…and frequent travel. He continues to seek out adventure, whether fishing bare-handed in a Kentucky creek, hunting for venison, working in a slaughterhouse, or just dropping in on a friend’s restaurant to cook for a few days. Lee lives in Louisville with his wife, Dianne. For more info: chefedwardlee.com.

What inspired your recent trip to Malaysia, and what did you learn there?
I cooked a five course meal, sponsored by Hennessy XO, for five nights in Kuala Lumpur, inspired by local Malaysian ingredients. We arrived with nothing but a knife bag and a few ideas; the whole menu was inspired by the wet markets, fish stands, and hawker food. We explored new ingredients (for us at least) like mangosteen, galangal, and fresh turmeric. I learned a lot about combining salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami in a balanced way that allows you to cook really bold flavors that aren’t overpowering. Tamarind, for example, is such a strong flavor, but, tempered with fish sauce, pineapple, caramel, and lime juice, it’s tamed just enough to coexist with these other strong flavors and becomes a harmonious dance in your mouth. Southeast Asian cuisine is so adept at this balancing act.

Where would you love to go on your next tasting trip…and why?
I’ve always been fascinated by the complexity of Indian cuisine and its regional differences. There’s so much I can learn about vegetarian food from the Hindu cuisine of India, not to mention the spices of Kerala and the new Indian cuisine that’s taking shape in Mumbai. India is a place where culinary and spiritual pursuits run along the same tangents…and that’s very intriguing to me.

How did/does your Korean heritage affect your culinary approach/philosophy/dishes today?
I live by the mantra that “everything tastes better with kimchi!”

Worst job ever…and why?
I worked for the Big Apple Circus for one tour in 1995. We worked 20hour shifts and traveled in sleeping trailers, four to a compartment: ex-cons, fugitives, and all-around derelicts running from something. I had to shovel elephant shit; that ain’t pleasant. I couldn’t wait to get back into a kitchen after that experience!

Who or what was your earliest culinary influence?
I always stood by my grandmother’s apron while she cooked. I’ll always have that memory of aromas and movement in her kitchen, which gives me comfort.

Most popular dish on your menu today? Most popular dish (at your restaurant) ever?
Today: Octopus cold-smoked with Bourbon barrel staves, eel brandade, and black garlic puree. It’s like Octopus bacon.
Ever: Braised beef short ribs with black barbecue sauce and edamame hummus. We have to take it off the menu sometimes just to give the cooks a break from getting bored.

What’s one thing in your kitchen you couldn’t live without?
A dishwasher.

What’s the one cookbook you use most often?
I haven’t used a cookbook in years, but I always did love Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook. And when I was younger, I wore out three copies of Jacques Pépin’s La Technique.

What do you eat when no one is watching?
I don’t closet eat. I love cold fried chicken with lime juice and Tabasco pepper sauce. I’ll share it with anyone.

What’s one thing that you will never ever eat?
My heart out.

What was the very worst day in your culinary career?
Every time I have to fire a cook. People think chefs enjoy that stuff. We don’t. It sucks. But there are some who just don’t belong in my kitchen. I hate breaking people’s spirits.

What one behavior guarantees you’ll fire a sous chef?
Yelling at waitstaff. I hate that old-school mentality of front-of-the-house versus back-of-the-house. We’re all one team.

If you could drink just one wine for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Kongsgaard Chardonnay.

What story does your cuisine tell?
I was raised in Brooklyn, into a family of Korean immigrants. I cut my teeth in NYC and found a home in the South, in Louisville. Along the way, I’ve embraced all of them. That’s my story and that’s my cuisine.

Favorite thing about your job?
I get paid to drink.

Least favorite thing about your job?
I get paid to drink.

Personal goal/fantasy not yet attained?
To help young people who have a dream but just don’t have the means to attain it.

If not this, then what? Meaning, what would your second career choice have been? What would it be now?
Writing poetry…but that’s such a lonely existence. I like being around people.