The first time I met chef Edward Lee he almost made me wet my pants on the back streets of Louisville. We were on a bourbon tour with friends and Lee’s beautiful wife Diane, and stories had started to flow as freely as brown water. This particular tale, the one that got me going, somehow exemplifies the chef’s insider/outsider perspective on the American South. Lee was on a mission to source local acorns to finish out some hogs (Spanish-style) before processing. A friend suggested that he place an ad for them in the papers of the small Appalachian towns that surround Louisville, where the nuts are plentiful. The surge of colorful voicemails (of the “what the hell is wrong with you, city boy?” variety) that ensued were a sobering reminder of the endless perspectives–both redneck and refined–brought to the Southern table.
In today’s celebrity-chef driven culinary landscape, the most compelling cooks—and food—have evolved from a circuitous path. It’s hard to imagine a better example than Lee, the chef at 610 Magnolia and the new MilkWood in Louisville. Lee is a fixture on the A-list food festival circuit, and has shaken skillets on Iron Chef and Top Chef. His distinctive Asian-inspired Southern cuisine (think Collards with Kimchi) has made him a poster child for the South’s shifting demographics with academic organizations like The Southern Foodways Alliance.
Yet it’s the chef’s unlikely personal story—a Brooklyn-raised kid of Korean lineage working in Kentucky—that prompts the most curiosity. “How did you get from Brooklyn to Louisville? It’s been the question of my life for the last decade,” Lee laughs. That answer is the reflective thread of his soulful debut cookbook Smoke & Pickles.
“In every chef’s trajectory, there is a crossroad, a time to tell a story,” Lee says. His is a collection of more than 100 recipes for home cooks, with dishes such as Pulled Pork Shoulder in Black BBQ Sauce, Fried Trout Sandwiches (with a punchy pear-ginger-cilantro slaw and spicy mayo), and Miso-Smothered Chicken. Smoke and Pickles is also a culinary autobiography that unravels the back-story of Lee’s patchwork cuisine that melds the flavors of his childhood (his grandmother cooked every day in their windowless apartment, he explains in the introduction), techniques of his classical French training, and the bourbon-soaked traditions of his adopted hometown.
Chapters like “Cows and Clover,” “Pickles and Matrimony,” and “Buttermilk and Karaoke” allow the chef to give local ingredients (and the Southern food movement) a cultural context. The photography, including an image of Lee nuzzling pigs while holding a bag of pork rinds, is both funny and folksy.
Louisville proved to be fertile ground for Lee’s passions and culinary risk taking. “It’s encouraging to live in a place that’s so supportive of indie restaurants,” the chef says. “It’s a very symbiotic relationship. Restaurateurs try to push the envelope by doing something innovating and challenging.” But those ideas don’t go anywhere, or fly off the menu, he explains, without a trusting clientele and a warm reception. “We rely on them as much as they rely on us,” he says.
Moving to Kentucky and sinking into Southern culture wasn’t strange, Lee explains, it was a natural outgrowth of his evolution rooted in smoke (sizzling Korean grills and Southern BBQ) and sharp pickles (from dill spears to kimchi). But like any great story of personal revelation, it took leaving home to embrace his culinary DNA. As Lee writes in the prologue, “What I didn’t expect was how I would come full circle and rediscover myself…that all the lovely and resourceful traditions of the Southern landscape would propel me back to the kitchen of my grandmother’s spicy, garlicky foods: soft grits remind me of congee; jerky of cuttlefish; chowchow of kimchi.”
“When you cook expressively it becomes very personal,” Lee says. “When I was a kid, the culinary industry was very professional, the chef was invisible and it was about technique and the food that appeared on the table—it did not involve the personal. The personal was reserved for the precious realm of home cooks. They were the ones who created comforting, loving food along with stories that explained a recipe’s origins, like a beloved dish from a grandmother or a trip to Italy.”
Smoke and Pickles shares the origins of his beloved flavors, along with must-try dishes like sweet and spicy Adobo-Fried Chicken and Waffles (made from dipping sauce infused with chili peppers, soy sauce and fish sauce), Pickled Chai Grapes (Lee serves them with salty Manchego and chacuterie), and Cola Ham Hocks with miso glaze. “They’re easy, and a blend of what the book is about–a merging of American, Southern and Asian flavors,” he says.
Smoke and Pickles delivers a sriracha-splashed path of finding your way in the world through passion, hard work and food that tastes like home. “There are a lot of opinions about what America is, and there’s rhetoric on both sides. I am living proof that the American dream is still alive. It sounds kind of cheesy but I really believe it,” Lee says. “My folks immigrated to give their children a better life, and they sacrificed a lot. I really believe this is a place where you work hard and become who you want to be.”
Writer and cookbook author Paula Disbrowe never met a mint julep, country ham or pickle that she didn't like.