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Q&A: Edward Lee, chef, on southern food and patriotism

Q&A: Edward Lee, chef, on southern food and patriotism

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Chef Edward Lee talks about a new kind of patriotism: southern food.

Chef Edward Lee’s bio reads, “One part Southern soul, one part Asian spice, and one part New York attitude.”

The combination is working.

Lee’s new cookbook Smoke & Pickles came out last month. His new bourbon -- Chef’s Collaboration Blend developed with New York based whiskey makers Jefferson’s Reserve -- comes out next month. And his restaurant 610 Magnolia, which serves contemporary southern cuisine -- think pork loin with marble potatoes and fiddlehead ferns -- in Louisville, KY, is doing unabashedly well. Did I mention his new baby boy? Let’s just say good things are happening in the south.

SmartPlanet sat down with the former native New Yorker to talk shop.

How did you get into southern food?

I moved from New York City to Louisville on a whim. When I got down there, I didn’t know much about southern food. Any chef that’s worth their weight is ultimately influenced by their surroundings. Little by little I started discovering these incredible traditions.

One of the things that influenced me the most down here is the idea of home cooking. You know, growing up in New York, people don’t have big kitchens so they don’t entertain much. In New York you go out to restaurants.

When I moved down here I was hyper focused on restaurant food. All of a sudden people would invite me over to their homes and this is what we think of when we hear the term southern hospitality. There was this incredible home cooking tradition. That influenced me the most. You can’t separate the food from the hospitality. It’s about the warmth and the sharing and the community. That was a huge discovery for me.

Can we talk about this blossoming southern food scene and why this is happening now?

I definitely think it’s chef-driven. Southern food has unfairly had a poor reputation for a long time. It’s been mired in the idea that it’s heavy, fatty, rich –- an old generation food.

Is the idea that southern food needs to be greasy or decadent in some way a total misinterpretation of the tradition? Do you think that this is an indication of a larger shift in the way we’re thinking about food and cooking? For example, in the early 2000s it was all about “gluten free” and keeping “the bun on the side.”

It is and it isn’t. I think all those things exist in a parallel universe. There are still people on the Atkins diet who come to my restaurant.

There has been this idea of patriotism taking hold of America and for what it’s worth, I think southern food represents so much of what is truly original and American. There is something to be said for the fact that southern cuisine is one of the oldest food traditions. There’s New England as well, but the food was influenced by very different cultures and historical factors. There are longstanding traditions here you don’t have in the rest of America. There’s something very comforting about that.

I remember taking a trip to Italy when I was young. I walked into a prosciutto cave and thought, “This is the coolest place in the world.” I remember saying, ignorantly, to myself, “Wow, I wish we had such things here in America.” And in fact we do. That’s one of the things I latched on to.

There are families making country ham here in Kentucky not two hours from where I live and they’ve been making it the exact same way for six or seven generations. Hanging it the old-fashioned way. Smoking it the old-fashioned way. It’s incredible that I could grow up in a place like New York and not know about these traditions.

The story of southern food really tells the story of race relations in America. This is a food tradition born out of poverty and lack of access to a diverse range of ingredients. On the other hand, some of the richest people in America were stakeholders in the south. So we have these food traditions coming out of these two extremely different cultural realities. Does southern food today speak to this in an interesting way?

You can’t separate southern food from slavery. You also can’t separate southern food from plantation owners and farmers and explorers. The roots of southern food are actually incredibly diverse. There are influences from far-reaching places –- the French influence in New Orleans, the British influences that traveled from the east to the west. Just here in Kentucky you have West Indian, Caribbean and African-American influences.

Southern food reflects America’s melting pot in many ways. You have this incredible fermentation of cultures, ideas, people, and conflict. An incredible cuisine arose from that.

Think about what collard greens represented. This throwaway green that no one wanted that was given to the poor. You know, I serve collard greens at my restaurant. People who come to my restaurant can afford whatever they want, but they love the collard greens.

Food is an amazing way to start a different conversation about race. We talk about race in a very distinct way when we talk about food, and I wonder if there are possibilities for new conversations that go beyond some of the traps we get stuck in –- because food is universal and it’s when we commune with each other.

When I grew up in Brooklyn I was surrounded by every race. The only dominant thread in my immigrant neighborhood was that everyone was pretty much poor.

I grew up with Jamaicans, Jewish people, Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, Indian people -- and everyone had their own food traditions. To taste all these different foods at a very early age had a huge influence on me.

I had friends who were Iranian and I’d taste their food and then go home and taste my own tradition of Korean food. Very early on -- probably by the age of twelve -- I had a distinct idea of how diverse food cultures were and what that meant. I look at food as a global tapestry. My focus is on southern food. I don’t cook traditional southern food, I cook with traditional southern ingredients, but the way I see food has always been globally.

You just came out with your first book, Smoke & Pickles. Why now and what is the book about?

There are a million cookbooks and there aren’t very many new recipes any more. But I think every chef gets to a point where he or she has a story to tell. I felt like this was the time. I needed to sit down and tell my story.

People always ask me, “How did you end up in Louisville?” I got tired of explaining my story so now I jokingly say, this book is the long answer.

We've talked about your discoveries of southern food and hospitality, and you've given us a sense of where you came from -- the quintessentially restaurant-driven, ethnically diverse New York. So how has your past informed your work in Kentucky?

I approach dishes from many different angles, if I get stumped in one direction, I feel like I can go in reverse and carry it out through another perspective. It's always felt very natural for me to do this. I think growing up with so many different cultures helped me to understand that there are many answers to the same question and who's to say what is right or wrong. My culinary vocabulary is vast -- and a lot of that started when I was very young exploring cuisines from all over the world.  Though I have made a commitment to a culinary South and the farmers and purveyors who supply my restaurants, I look at these same ingredients with a wide lens -- with a desire to expand the dialogue of cuisine.

Is there anything you’re excited about that you’d like to add?

I made a bourbon with the master distiller and owner of Jefferson’s Reserve. It’s called [Chef’s] Collaboration Blend and it should be out by July.

One of the biggest traditions, specifically in Kentucky, is bourbon. And bourbon is really hot right now. I travel a lot for my job and every city I go to I find these young bartenders making bourbon drinks as if it’s a new thing. It’s so funny because bourbon has been around forever. It’s wonderful it’s so popular. It’s also another example: bourbon hasn’t changed. It’s been the same for generations.

Have you tasted Collaboration Blend?

It’s pretty incredible. And it’s been an incredibly fun experience. It’s kind of the pinnacle of my tenure here in Kentucky. It doesn’t get any better than making your own bourbon. I’m very proud of that.

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Sonya James

Contributing Writer

Sonya James is a multimedia producer based in New York. With creativity and innovation in mind, she speaks to diverse voices on topics from racism in the art world to the patriotic nature of southern food. She holds a Masters Degree in Community Development. Disclosure