Q&A: Chef Edward Lee

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It’s the middle of May, which means only one thing—Biscuitfest is back! The fifth International Biscuit Festival gets underway early Saturday morning, and this year will extend into Sunday, with a food truck extravaganza on Gay Street Sunday night, followed by an appearance by the Food Network’s Tyler Florence at the Tennessee Theatre.

But for the hardcore food lovers, the best part—dinner at Blackberry Farm—will have already happened. At $450, the Southern Food Writing Conference on May 15 and 16 isn’t cheap, but you get your money’s worth with two days of gourmet food and drinks and, even better, talks by some of the country’s best chefs and food writers. John T. Edge, Ted Lee, Lisa Donovan, and John Currence are just a handful of the speakers coming.

And so is Edward Lee, the chef behind Louisville’s 610 Magnolia and MilkWood. Lee left his native Brooklyn for Louisville in 2003 and hasn’t looked back. He’s been a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award (the Oscar of the food world) four times, he competed on Top Chef, and his first cookbook, Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, was released to much acclaim last year.

You’ve been a finalist for a Beard the past four years. I’m sorry you didn’t win on Monday, but did you have fun anyway?

Oh, yes, it’s always a good time. And it was good to be back in New York.

You left New York for Louisville, and that’s where you gained renown. It used to be that to become a star in the culinary world, you had to make it in New York, or maybe Chicago or L.A. But now a number of the restaurant world’s hottest names are in places like Portland and Birmingham—how much do you think this change has to do with the appreciation of regional fare, and how much with the economics of starting a restaurant in New York these days?

I don’t think movements happen for any one reason. I think a lot of things have just happened to converge at the same time. Yes, New York just became priced out for many guys—they’d work there and train there, but when they wanted to open their own restaurant, they couldn’t afford it. So they’d go back home and take that talent they learned and apply it to regional food. And I think that you had people yearning for something a little less fancy after the recession hit, and so that was part of it. But at the same time you also had the rise of the celebrity chef, and you just can’t write about New York and San Francisco every month, so you’ve got to find other chefs out there. And you know they used to say you can’t get a good meal outside of New York, and maybe that was the case in the ’80s, but now, I think you can get better meal outside of the city than in it. This farm-to-table movement exists in big cities, but it’s a little contrived. If I’m in New York, I’ve got to drive upstate to go to a farm, and that’s two hours each way and I don’t own a car anyway. Here, I have partners with a lot of farms, and I can be at any of them within half an hour. It becomes very real. It’s not just a slogan. These farmers are my friends. When I say farm-to-table, it’s not about marketing a burger. I really mean it.

You write in Smoke and Pickles that you don’t like the term “fusion”—and this is a quote—“because it implies a kind of culinary racism, suggesting that foods from Eastern cultures are so radically different that they need to be artificially introduced or ‘fused’ with Western cuisines to give them legitimacy.” How prevalent do you think “culinary racism” is? Or is it something that’s going away?

Things are definitely changing. I used that phrase for the shock value—to get people thinking. But the chef who originally created the term “fusion,” Norman Van Aken in Miami, was talking about combining high and low techniques. He was saying, let’s combine the way food is cooked in Latin America with the French techniques we’re taught in culinary school. He was not talking about mixing plantains with foie gras. And it became misinterpreted, so then you get this caricature, like I’m going to take Japanese food and mix it with macaroni and cheese. And that’s very racist, in that there’s no respect for either culture in that kind of dish. But I think that’s going away. I think we’ve gotten to a stage where chefs like Danny Bowien at Mission Chinese and others are cooking food that combines aspects of different cultures, but they’re doing it in a way that’s thoughtful and meaningful. The idea that as chefs, we’ve gone out and embraced a wide range of cultures and cooking techniques but we can’t use them is frustrating. If a sushi chef makes really good pasta when he’s cooking at home, why should he be excluded from having something Italian on the menu just because there’s a Japanese flag on the restaurant sign? It’s underestimating the skill of the chef. I like cooking Moroccan food at home—why should I be limited in what I’m serving at my restaurant because that’s how I market myself? I think that’s all going out the window. I see Andy Ricker, a white guy, making Thai food, and it’s the best Thai food I’ve had, so what’s wrong with that? There’s a sea change coming.

As a Korean-American chef from Brooklyn reinventing Southern cuisine, I imagine you’ve gotten some pushback from traditionalist diners. Do you think some Southerners’ resistance to change when it comes to food is at all tied up with the history of racism in the region? Or do people just hate change?

I think anytime you have an established culture that wants to hold on to something and a younger generation pushing for innovation, there’s resistance. You have it anywhere and everywhere there’s culture. And I would say this fervently—tradition is not a stagnant thing. If you try to preserve what you think of as tradition at this specific moment in time and freeze it, you will kill what you’re trying to preserve. Take Southern food—if you go back 15 years, traditional Southern food is Paula Deen. If you go back 40 years, it’s what people are cooking on the farm. But if you go back 100 years, you find these recipes rooted in French and British culture. And if you look at it now, you have these chefs redefining it for the next generation. And you know, what you’re talking about a lot of times is something that was the cuisine of slaves. The answer is that there is not one definition of Southern food, because historically Southern food is really diverse because of all of the trading that happened. So you have these African influences and these Caribbean influences, although some of that has gotten whitewashed. I find it fascinating that people just want to lock into one definition. But I think what I’m doing with my Korean-influenced dishes, I’m just adding another layer to the vocabulary. There’s room for many different traditions.

So do you think the future of Southern food will reflect the recent influx of immigrants to the region? Like, if you had to cook a dinner that might reflect a representative Southern dinner 50 years from now, what would be on the menu?

It would be a confluence of things. Not everything has to be tweaked—you know, in my cookbook, my recipe for pimiento cheese is just a recipe for pimiento cheese. The dinner I would like to see would have a mix of some really traditional things, like spoon bread, that has that crispy top and is perfectly creamy underneath—a perfect thing made in a cast-iron skillet, just like it was 100 years ago. But then there’d be some dish with chipotle peppers or lemongrass—all these flavors that go really well with Southern food but aren’t native to the area. And I would love to see chefs that have really brought back the idea of home cookery—cooking in a restaurant the way you cook at home. I would hope to see more women chefs, and I would really love to see some African-American chefs. I look around the landscape of chefs doing Southern food, and I don’t see that many. But their ancestors are responsible for creating a lot of it, and they should take ownership and be prideful of that.

Last fall, Jefferson’s released a small-batch bourbon/rye blend you helped create specifically to pair with spicier dishes, which seems almost counterintuitive—most sommeliers usually recommend a light or sweet pairing. So why bourbon?

I think the vocabulary and lexicon we use for wine is not right for bourbon. You just can’t talk about it in the same way—the only thing they have in common is that they’re both liquids. You almost have to forget everything you’ve learned about wine and start over when it comes to whiskey. Now that flavors are so aggressive, and now that food is spiced so intensely, you can’t have red wine with it. Whiskey can go well with things that wine doesn’t, like smoked foods. Most whiskey is too aggressive or harsh to really drink with food, though, so we created a softer bourbon, although it’s not technically a bourbon because we added rye. But it’s a very round bourbon with a longer finish. It really works well with the foods that I cook.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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