The last time Edward Lee was in town, he took part in the Charleston Wine + Food Festival's Waffle House Smackdown and brought the house down with his ad-libbed line cook repartee with Chef Mike Lata.
While the other chefs in the competition — Lata, Michelle Weaver, and Ashley Christensen — had dutifully reported to the nearest Waffle House for training, Christensen even going multiple times, Lee blew it off and showed up sans training. How hard could it be, really, to cook up some eggs and waffles? Well, when it comes to corporate food, doing things by the book is what it's all about. And Lee is not a by-the-book kind of guy.
This is evident in the first chapter of his new cookbook, Smoke & Pickles, which begins with the requisite grandmother story but then veers off into an unexpected direction, equating graffiti with food. "Graffiti was my first cuisine," he claims and then eloquently makes the case for how the impermanence of his spray-painted tags on subway cars prepared him for the impermanence of cooking food. It takes a skilled writer to make such a connection meaningful.
The chef, who has two restaurants in Louisville, Ky., got his start as a law-breaking graffiti artist before heading to NYU to graduate with an English Lit degree. In the cookbook, he tells stories that are deep, soulful, and utterly honest and shares recipes that are unique to his hardscrabble background, like an imperfect bowl of rice and the perfect remoulade, a sauce he encountered dining at his first upscale restaurant at the age of 13.
A Korean kid, he grew up in Brooklyn to immigrant parents, being watched over by his grandma while his parents worked long hours in a garment factory. It's an experience that developed not only his palate but his sarcasm and sense of adventure. He was melded in the melting pot of America, with a hodgepodge of ethnic neighbors who came from around the globe and shared their foods with each other.
At 25, he opened a Korean barbecue joint. In the book, he describes the party scene: "Every night we started out as a marginally respectable restaurant, but by midnight someone was dancing on the bar or making out in the kitchen, and suspiciously long lines would develop for the bathroom."
Partied out and devastated by 9/11, he ended up in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby and moved there permanently after being wooed by the owners of 610 Magnolia, who were looking for someone to shepherd their restaurant into a new era. Lee puts it this way: "They had seen in me something that I could not see myself: the will to succeed."
He took the bait, and Louisville let him reinvent himself. He quickly became an enthusiastic Southern transplant, embracing the bourbon and buttermilk culture he found in Kentucky. At 610 Magnolia, where he is chef and co-owner, the waves of attention started rolling in. Profiles in national media came along with an appearance on Iron Chef, which he won. As he was negotiating a deal with Artisan for a cookbook, he was picked to be part of the Texas season of Top Chef, where he became a fan favorite for his hilarious observations and hard-partying ways.
He was so appealing as a character, it's surprising he didn't get spun off into being a guest judge (á la Hugh Acheson) or getting his own show.
"You should tell them that," he laughs before admitting that he's currently working on something. Of course, he's cagey on the details. "I can't say anything, but I've got a couple of things, irons in the fire. These things take a long time to work out. I wish it was as easy as 'give me a show.'"
He says the plan is at the painful-yet-fun stage, but he won't give up the format just yet. "We're working on it. I'm not interested in doing the formulaic show that is on TV, where you're just plugging me into a preexisting format. That doesn't excite me. It doesn't get my wheels spinning," he says, before dropping some tantalizing hints. "It's definitely got some sarcasm, humor. It's a little outlandish ... it's truly reflective of the culture we live in now with food, which is serious but pretty insane at times, illogical at times, but it's just completely fun and it doesn't always make sense why people care about this stuff so much but they do."
It seems in our world of increasingly virtual reality, the realness of food appeals.
"There's something in this food thing right now that's very genuine, and that's why people are buying cookbooks, watching food shows. It doesn't matter how artificial the TV show is, if it's about food it's more genuine, more heartwarming, tangible. So, instead of taking it more artificial, let's take it to the other side and make it more real, more nutty, more illogical because that's the world we live in."
If Lee does do a TV show, it's going to be his own idea, not somebody else's. "I feel like with the TV thing or with anything, when you have a fully formed vision, my goal is to execute that vision where there's as little interference as possible."
Lee knows it's possible. He's done it with his new restaurant, Milkwood, which opened five months ago, and he did it with his cookbook, which was published by Artisan in May.
"Artisan took a risk," he says. "The vision that I had for the book wasn't exactly the book they're used to putting out, and it was definitely something we had to collaborate on, and I was adamant that it be the fully formed vision I had."
Smoke & Pickles tells the story of Lee's Southern reinvention via food. His recipes are a mash-up of his seminal influences — Korean grandmother, New York food adventures, a trip to cook in France — and his new hometown. He has found a modern intersection of food and culture where he can be himself, in all his contradictory glory. Green tomato kimchi, togarishi cheesecake with sorghum, grilled Border Springs lamb heart kalbi in lettuce wraps, pickled jasmine peaches with star anise — the dishes span the breadth of his experiences.
Lee is currently on a cookbook tour and will be in town this week for a booksigning and demonstration at Le Creuset and a luncheon at Trattoria Lucca with Chef Ken Vedrinski.
As for what other trouble he plans to get into while here, he has no idea. He's buddies with plenty of chefs around town, so he's not too concerned. The last time he came to Charleston he ended up, he says, "Being somewhere next to the water with my pants down eating oysters." Good times.