Iron Chef America Victor Chef Edward Lee Serves Up Korean-Brooklyn Inspired Southern Cuisine
By Shana Ting Lipton
When I first met Edward Lee in Manhattan he was a literary agent. A few years later, he opened up a creative Korean restaurant in Little Italy called Clay. The Korean American chef and former lit major has come a long way since then–literally and figuratively. He moved to to Lousville, Kentucky and took over the helm of 610 Magnolia, reinventing it as a top culinary destination for new Southern American cooking.
His melding of his take on Southern cuisine with everything from Korean to Indian cuisine has garnered him praise from Gourmet magazine and the New York Times. It also fostered honors including a win on the Food Netork’s Iron Chef America, and a formidable reputation as a chef and tastemaker.
Refreshingly, Lee is a sort of intellectual and literate Renaissance-chef, who draws his inspiration from all manner of cultural influences–from traditional French cuisine to the writing of William Faulkner.
Edward Lee’s Chic Trek Interview
CT: Where is the most exciting and innovative cuisine coming out of these days on a global scale?
EL: The most innovative chefs are still coming out of Spain but there are pockets of incredible things happening all over, like Scandinavia, London, Korea, etc. It used to be all about France but culinary dominance has decentralized and anywhere you have a hungry young chef willing to scour the internet in search of inspiration, you have the potential for a great innovator.
CT: What are your favorite herbs and/or spices?
EL: I’m really into Indian Spices right now, ajwain, fresh curry leaves, masala blends,chapti, etc. There is so much potential in them that we in the western world have not even scratched the surface of these incredible spice blends.
CT: What have the effects of TV cooking competitions been on the culinary scene today?
EL: Cooking competitions are like game shows, they are entertaining and filled with tension but ultimately I don’t know if they change the landscape of cuisine much. I do think they give a national platform for young chefs in out of the way cities (like Louisville) to shine and for that, it is valuable part of the nurturing of young chefs.
CT: What is the most unusual (cultural) hybrid in terms of dishes that you have cooked in your restaurant?
EL: I like to do a lot of convergence of Asian and Southern cuisine. I think they actually have a lot in common. Our most popular example of this is our Southern BBQ sauce made with an Asian profile of black garlic and black bean. It still seems familiar as a BBQ sauce but the Asian flavors are surprising and really makes people take notice.
CT: Being a Korean Brooklyn native, did you grow up more influenced by Korean food or Brooklyn style cooking?
EL: Korean food was important to me as a template to learn about salty, spicy, sweet and sour. It definitely molded my approach to food philosophically but the street food of Brooklyn was certainly what I fell in love with first. Whether it was a hot dog stand or an ice cream truck, those were the first instances when I got real excited about food. I still try to think back to those moments when I am feeling a but overwhelmed by the seriousness of it all.
CT: You went traveling around in a search of a restaurant back in 2002…which cities did you visit? Why did you decide on Louisville?
EL: I’d never visited Louisville before and knew next to nothing about it. I visited 610 Magnolia because a friend of a friend told me about it. I wasn’t looking to move there and buy the restaurant at the time but sometimes things just happen for a reason. I’d been to other places like Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina but nothing hit me like KY did so I made the leap.
CT: What was the scene like in Louisville when you first arrived to helm your restaurant? How has that changed?
EL: It was a little stuck in the old definitions of what Southern food ought to be. I like to say that sometimes it takes an outsider to look at the landscape and see it in a new fresh light. I was “allowed” to take liberties with southern ingredients precisely because I was not from the South and that was actually an advantage. I don’t claim to have a Southern restaurant by any stretch of the imagination but I do use the influences of the South that are all around me to inform my cuisine.
CT: How would you characterize your breed of New American cuisine?
EL: I try not to label my cuisine but it is an individualistic approach to American cuisine insofar as the definition of America to me has been informed by my immigrant Korean experience, my childhood in NYC and my current surroundings in the South. All three of these very different perspectives find a way onto every menu I write. So I don’t put a label on it, I just try to interpret it in an accessible way for my clients. And for the most part they get it. It isn’t Korean or New York of Louisville… it is just American to me, just my America.
CT: Sum up if you would, your farm-to-table philosophy.
A menu is a promise, a narrative. It’s the story of me and a large part of who I am is a proponent of the good work that farmers do. I speak through them and I make sure that what I give to my clients, what I promise them, is to serve them the best ingredients I can find. Naturally that leads me to the farmers that I know and trust and love. I don’t just use ingredients from any farm. I know these people, I trust them, they would no sooner lie to me as lie to their own children. These are the kinds of people you want raising animals and vegetables for you.
CT: You are ‘largely self-taught.’ Does that mean you never actually went to culinary school?
EL: I went to cooking school for one day, looked around and looked at my curriculum and knew I was in the wrong place. I slipped out to the bathroom, left the building and never looked back. I learned from hardened NY chefs, brutal but good lessons. I traveled through Europe for about six months. That was more of an education than two years in any culinary school could have given me.
CT: Is French cooking still the standard culinary yardstick?
EL: It may be losing its grip, but yes I still think the techniques and culture of French food is still the culinary yardstick. It may not be everyone’s and I don’t think you need to have a working knowledge of French cuisine to be a success (the way you did a generation ago) but show me an accomplished chef and I’ll almost always show you someone proficient in the ways of French cuisine and more often than not, someone who has trained under a rigid french chef.
CT: If, as you’ve said, food is like literature, explain the trajectory of your culinary career through the literary analogy.
EL: I’ve always loved Faulkner, the way he was able to take a confusing and misunderstood Southern culture and created mystical stories about the small landscape that he knew but elevated these stories into universal themes that resonated with people from all over the world. If I could do an ounce of what he did with words with my food, I will die a happy man.