Edward Lee is a Brooklyn born chef who graduated Magna Cum Laude from New York University with an English Literature degree and now sees his Korean-American heritage through a Southern prism at two Louisville restaurants: 610 Magnolia and MilkWood. He was a finalist for for the James Beard Foundation Awards Best Chef: Southeast in 2011 and 2012, defeated Jose Garces on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” and fared well on “Top Chef: Texas.” In May, he released a cookbook called “Smoke & Pickles.” I interviewed Lee during a promotional tour stop at Bibigo in Beverly Hills, where he shared several insights.
Was it a given that you would become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
No, actually, it wasn’t at all. When I was a kid, we didn’t have the Food Network and all that stuff so there were not many cooking schools, the ones that were there were really cost-prohibitive. When I was growing up, it wasn’t so much looked at as a glorified profession, so I probably would have become a chef earlier, had those doors been available to me, but I knew I wanted to cook ever since I was a little kid. There just weren’t very many outlets back then, so I actually ended up going to college for literature and I worked in publishing for a few years, was terrible at that, and decided, “Let’s make a leap and go for it.”
What was the very first restaurant you worked at, and what do you remember about that first night in the kitchen?
The very first restaurant I worked at, I was a kid and I got a job at the Trump Tower, there’s a little restaurant inside the Trump Tower called The Terrace. I was 16 and it was like a summer job, and I just remember it being very different. I’d never been in that world – I was a young kid, and the waitresses were hot, and everyone seems so – you know, ultra-cool. I just got hooked immediately.
What does a dish have to be to appear on your menu, and how does that vary from restaurant to restaurant?
You know, philosophically it’s the same. We come up with dishes all the time. We try never to repeat a dish that we did last year the same way this year, so we’re always trying to update. In many ways I’d like to say that there are not too many dishes that I’ve done year after year after year. Even if we think they’re perfect, we usually change them up a bit. A lot of it for me, now, is just collaboration. Making sure that my guys and my chefs underneath me are involved in the process. They’re putting in their own two cents and coming up with menu items. We just sit around and literally talk about the food and we collaborate and try to come up with a cohesive menu that sort of incorporates all of our opinions and voices, so that it’s not just about me, which I think is very gratifying then, because it really gets them involved in my philosophy of food.
Tell me about your most recent collaboration on a dish, what was the approach and inspiration behind it?
One of the things we did recently was pork shoulder, and we talked about how do we want to do this pork shoulder…I knew I wanted to do some kind of an Asian barbeque, and what do we add on to it? So the first thing we do is we perfect the smoking time and technique, so one guy worked on that, just to get the texture perfect. I’ll work on a black barbeque sauce, its like an Asian-inspired barbeque sauce using fermented black beans. I’ll work on the sauce, and maybe another chef will work on the sides, and we’ll all just kind of go and come back, we all have a hand in this dish, so we critique each other’s work and try to make it better, and it’s a very interesting kind of process.
That’s on the menu now?
Who else do you look to, in the restaurant industry, for inspiration, guidance or advice?