Having chef and memoirist Edward Lee on Special Sauce was the happiest of accidents. Sitting on top of a pile of books on Special Sauce associate producer Marissa Chen’s desk was Lee’s evocative and moving memoir, Buttermilk Graffiti. I read a chapter, was knocked out by it, and emailed his publicist asking if Lee–chef/owner at three restaurants in Louisville, Kentucky, and culinary director at another in Washington, DC, and Maryland–was going to be in NYC any time soon. By some miracle, he was, and you can hear the results of all this serendipity on this week’s episode of Special Sauce (and next’s).
Growing up in the then-polyglot neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn, Lee was exposed to all kinds of food, and he and his friends ate anything and everything: “We’re going to get a beef patty, and then we’re going to eat some Pakistani food, and then get a slice of pizza.” But, he says, the household he was raised in didn’t exactly encourage his interest in cooking from a young age. “It was interesting back then, coming from a traditional, patriarchal Korean family. I was not going to be the one to cook. I had an older sister, and it’s the girl that the recipes get passed down to, not the boy in the family. I’m supposed to go off and do whatever boys do. I literally had to fight my way into the kitchen. I was very persistent, even as a little kid…. I basically said, ‘Listen, I’m not leaving.’ [My grandmother] would let me hang out in the kitchen. She wouldn’t tell me what she was doing, but she would just let me hang out in the kitchen, and she would just be like, ‘Well, if you’re going to be here, be here, but I’m not going to tell you anything about this.'”
When he told his parents he was going to become a chef, they were not pleased: “For my parents, they said to me, they said, ‘You’re being a servant. You’re choosing a life of servitude.’ Of course, my rebuttal was, ‘Hey, you become an accountant, you’re still serving someone.’ They didn’t want to hear that. I was kind of a smart aleck. They didn’t like those answers. There were no celebrity chefs back then. There was no ownership of your destiny, ownership of your career.”
Before Lee truly embarked on that career, however, he fell in love with graffiti, an outlet that, to him, represented art at its most democratic and most ephemeral. For many of the young people he grew up around, it was a “futile attempt at leaving some permanence on the world, knowing that this thing was going to get covered up in a week or two, or month. There was something both tragic and beautiful about it…. Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but I make the comparison now that food is so much the same way. Food is so much about…. It’s just a moment.”
Lee eventually found his way to Louisville, where he encountered his first bowl of collard greens at a local soul food restaurant and was drawn in by the multiethnic nature of Southern food culture. You’ll hear more about how his exposure to Southern culture transformed his approach to food, plus the important life lessons he learned during his stint as a short-order cook in college, when you tune in.
EL: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
ELee: My second day on the job during the lunch shift, Michelle Pfeiffer came in with her bodyguard, and they said, “Hey, make a cappuccino for her,” and I did. I was so nervous that as I brought it to her table, I spilled it, and I burned my thumb. She looked up at me and said, “Thank you.” I literally remember that at the end of that shift going, “This is it. This is all I ever want to do.”
EL: This week, I’m very excited to welcome chef and writer Edward Lee. Ed is the chef-owner of 610 Magnolia, Milkwood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky. Do they say Louisville, right?
ELee: Yeah. You’ve got to say it like you’re slightly drunk.
EL: I know. I know. Louisville, Kentucky. And the culinary director of Succotash in Washington, D.C. and National Harbor, Maryland. He’s also one of the best chef writers we have, and his writing skills are fully displayed in his new book, Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting Pot Cuisine. Welcome to Special Sauce, Edward Lee. Big props to you for Buttermilk Graffiti, my friend.
ELee: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
EL: Oh, it’s great. What a terrific book. Before we get to the book, I have so many other things I need to talk to you about. I hope you’re not planning to be anywhere in the next couple hours.
ELee: No, no. I’m all yours.
EL: Okay. First of all, tell us about life at the Lee family table. I guess there were two family tables, one in Korea and one in Brooklyn, or you don’t really remember much about Korea?
ELee: No. I was born in Korea, but I came over when I was probably six or seven months old.
EL: Got it. So you really don’t have memories.
ELee: Not much.
EL: Maybe some formula.
ELee: Maybe, maybe. All my formative years were growing up in Brooklyn. My parents were very interesting and very progressive for the time. Most of the Koreans coming over in the early ’70s were moving to Flushing. That was the Korean stronghold. They decided to move to a somewhat Jewish/Italian/Jamaican/Pakistani neighborhood in Brooklyn.
EL: Perfect for a chef.
ELee: Well, yeah. I didn’t know it at the time. They weren’t intending on that, but it was something that I just … I grew up in Canarsie. I saw the last vestiges of, kind of Italian and Polish culture. There was Jewish culture everywhere, but then there were Jamaicans. There were Indians. There were so many immigrants around there, and I grew up with that as just being normal. It was not-
ELee: No. When you grow up in that, it’s just like we’re going to go …
EL: It’s what you do.
ELee: Yeah. We’re going to get a beef patty and then we’re going to go eat some Pakistani food and then get a slice of pizza.
EL: Yeah, yeah. That’s cool. What did your mom cook?
ELee: Both my mom and dad worked in garment factories around New York City, which at the time were like, it was huge. They actually didn’t cook. It was my grandmother who stayed at home and cooked. Pretty much everything that I ate from the time that I was a baby til probably 12 years old was basically cooked by my grandmother.
ELee: Obviously, I ate school lunches, but that wasn’t much to speak of, public school systems.
EL: Was Wednesday pizza day?
ELee: The chocolate milk was a vegetable. Yeah. Just my grandmother had a huge influence on defining my taste buds and just sort of like … We were poor, so it was a luxury to buy things like instant ramen or to buy things like TV dinners.
EL: That was a treat.
ELee: That was a treat, and boy, I would beg for those Swanson TV dinners. That was like heaven.
EL: What did she cook? What did your grandmother cook?
ELee: It was all very traditional Korean food. She made all of her fermented sauces from scratch, which of course, now it’s like the trendy thing, but I remember my windowsill was always full of kimchis and misos and gochujangs and different kind of pastes and things. It stunk up the house like hell, but it was just part of what she did. She had the luxury of time. She didn’t have money, but she had time, so she would sit in the kitchen all day and make these recipes. Lots of stews. Not a lot of meats. Again, doing a Korean kalbi was a treat. Most of what we ate were like lots of seaweed stews, lots of broths, lots of miso-based stews, rice.
EL: She was doing slow food before it was fashionable.
ELee: She was doing very, very slow food. It was interesting back then, coming from a traditional patriarchal Korean family. I was not going to be the one to cook. I had an older sister, and it’s the girl that the recipes get passed down to, not the boy in the family. I’m supposed to go off and do whatever boys do. I literally had to fight my way into the kitchen, because my grandmother … All I wanted when other kids were out playing wiffle ball, I wanted to stay home and hang out with my grandmother.
EL: And your sister wanted to go and play wiffle ball.
ELee: She was out drinking.
EL: Oh, okay.
ELee: Smoking weed. I don’t know. But my grandmother would tell me in no uncertain terms, “You’re going to be a man, and this is not your place. You don’t belong in there.” So I literally had to fight my way into the kitchen. I was very persistent, even as a little kid. I basically said, “Listen, I’m not leaving.” She would let me hang out in the kitchen. She wouldn’t tell me what she was doing, but she would just let me hang out in the kitchen, and she would just be like, “Well, if you’re going to be here, be here, but I’m not going to tell you anything about this.”
EL: Wow. Were you like the kid getting up on the chair?
ELee: I’ve been fascinated by it since my earliest memories. I remember, if anyone has grown up in an apartment building with a laundromat in the basement, I’d accompany my grandmother when she had to babysit me. I would go to the laundromat, and I would pick up these old magazines. People would dump all their old magazines in a bin, and I would pick up all the old food magazines, and I would collect them. I always said other kids were hiding Playboy magazines under their pillows.
EL: Right, or maybe collecting baseball cards, and you’re collecting old food magazines?
ELee: Yeah. I had old Gourmet magazines and Bon Appetit magazines. This is crazy. I would just read them, and I would look at them. When I would save my allowance money, and I would go shopping in Chinatown or something and I’d buy these things, and I would make these recipes from scratch.
EL: Would your father acknowledge that you were interested in cooking?
ELee: No. I really don’t think they had any idea what I was doing. They were very busy, and they had their own troubles to deal with. I would, maybe once every few months, I’d make these meals, and the family would get together or whatever. I would cook these meals for them. Nine times out of 10, they came out horribly, because I was 10, so they were not … I would skip some major detail.
EL: You were not a candidate for Top Chef Junior?
ELee: No, no.
EL: Or Master Chef Junior?
ELee: I definitely was not. But they had to endure some pretty horrific meals when I was a kid. But I knew. I distinctly remember telling my parents. I may have been 10 or 11. I said, “I’m going to be a chef.”
EL: Instead of a ball player. You were going to be a chef.
ELee: It was funny, because whatever. As parents, you say, “Sure. You’re going to be an astronaut. You’re going to be a baseball player,” and you figure a kid will grow out of that. I remember every few years, they’d ask me, and I’d go, “I’m going to be a chef.” I just never outgrew it.
EL: In the book, you talk about the episode of Mind of a Chef that you were on. Graffiti plays a big role in your teenage years.
ELee: I grew up in New York City, in Brooklyn. Yes, my formative years, when you start to create your own identity, when you stop becoming your parents’ kid and you try and become your own person. I was lucky in some ways, I guess. Graffiti was really just this thing that had exploded and was everywhere. People were talking about it. It was the first art form, I truly believe, that was on a grassroots level. I didn’t have to go to a museum to see it. I didn’t have to pay a fee to go to a gallery. It was something that-
EL: It was street pop art.
ELee: It was street pop art, and it was something that was available. Not only was it available to everyone, but also my classmates at school were doing it. It was something that was very inside my culture. It was, for me, as a young kid in Brooklyn not knowing where I fit in, it was for me a tribe. It was something. It was a group that I could belong to or that I could attach myself to.
EL: That’s interesting. You called it a tribe. I’ve been writing a book about the Serious Eats experience, creating this thing that nobody had ever created before and seeing it through 10 years to its illogical conclusion. I’ve really been thinking a lot about tribes and how I created a tribe and how at Serious Eats and how important tribes are in general in our lives. It’s not usually your family. The tribe is usually the people you choose. You talk about tribes in the book, about that chefs are tribes, southern chefs, especially. That was your tribe. They were all graffiti artists. Do you-
ELee: It wasn’t … Just like chefs aren’t all just about cooking food, it wasn’t just about writing graffiti, but it was that under culture, that subculture that existed where I was in Brooklyn and then subsequently in Lower Manhattan. It was something that was exciting to me. It was something very derelict.
EL: And a little dangerous.
ELee: It was very dangerous and it was cool. The girls thought it was sexy. What better … We were right at the point of Giuliani just starting to come into office, and it was the end of that culture, for good or bad. I’m not passing judgment on it, but crime in New York was going down. Everything, graffiti was going to come to an end. Subway cars had changed. For me, I remember it was at that time, too, that I got my first job at a high-end restaurant and saw these rockstar chefs and these badass waiters who would ride motorcycles and hang out and smoke cigarettes. It was like these were even cooler than the-
EL: So that was after college, or that …
ELee: No. I actually got my first job … I was 15 when I got my first job.
EL: Where was that?
ELee: This is a hilarious story, considering all the current political things going on right now. My first job in the restaurant industry, I was 15. I applied for a busboy job at a restaurant called Terrace Five that was on the fifth floor of Trump Tower. I didn’t get the job, because I was too young, and so I went home. The manager called me up that Friday, and said, “Hey, the busboy we hired never showed up. If you can get here in 20 minutes, I will lie on your application, and you’ve got the job.”
ELee: So I ran up there and got the job. That was my first job, being a busboy at this really small but very fine-dining restaurant. My second day on the job during the lunch shift, Michelle Pfeiffer came in with her bodyguard. They said, “Hey, make a cappuccino for her,” and I did. I was so nervous that as I brought it to her table, I spilled it, and I burned my thumb. I dropped this thing. It had more coffee in the saucer, I think, than in the cup.
EL: That’s awesome.
ELee: She looked up at me and said, “Thank you.” That was it. I literally remember that at the end of that shift going, “This is it. This is all I ever want to do.”
EL: That’s funny. Let’s get back to graffiti for a second, because you talk about how one of the things that made it interesting to you is that it was so temporal, that it was transient. What about that appealed to you?
ELee: What I loved about it was that it wasn’t precious. It was gritty. It was really … You were talking about kids who knew, many of whom knew that they were not going to be successful in this world in that traditional sense, many who might have … Some were on a death wish. Some didn’t know if they were going to make it past their 17th birthday. So this form of art, this futile attempt at leaving some permanence on the world, knowing that this thing was going to get covered up in a week or two or month. There was something both tragic and beautiful about it. I made the comparison. Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but I make the comparison now that food is so much the same way. Food is so much about …
EL: A moment.
ELee: It’s just a moment. It’s the same thing. When you go in and you have this chicken dish and it’s sublime, and the next week it may be just so-so. Maybe there was a moment in that kitchen where this young guy was cooking it, and he just, man, he just put beauty on the plate.
EL: Yeah. Eric Dolphy said about music, who was a famous jazz violist.
ELee: He’s one of my favorites. Out to Lunch, one of my favorites.
EL: Yeah, great record. He said, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air. You can never capture it again.”
ELee: There is something just absolutely beautiful about the memory of a dish, just like I have memories of beautiful subway cars that I just know … Back then, we didn’t have cell phone cameras, so there’s very few pictures of these things. I have these memories of the entire subway, not just cars, but the entire subway line painted in one long mural. It’s absolutely … These are colossal works of art, almost impossible to imagine in your head that you could take 12 subway cars and make one piece going down from one end to the other.
EL: And then they would paint them over, and they would be gone.
ELee: Then you’d start again. It’s not unlike restaurants. You spend all day, an army of chefs, creating this food, and then three hours, hordes of customers come in and just consume it, and it’s all gone. You just do it again the next day.
EL: You mention in the book that you told your parents pretty early on, in your late teens probably, that you really wanted to be a chef. That didn’t go down so well, did it?
ELee: No, it did not. It did not.
EL: Talk a little bit about that.
ELee: It’s a really interesting phenomenon that I’m in my mid-40s. Anyone I talk to my age or older, I’m always curious about. I’m always asking chefs, like, “When did you decide to become a chef? How, and what did your parents say when you told them?” Almost everyone has got a different path towards how they became a chef, but almost everyone has the same answer, especially if you were American. It’s like their parents were all like, “Oh, boy.” Just like they would just put their head in their hand and go, “Oh, really?” It’s a very similar … I don’t care what culture you come from. It just wasn’t the thing to do. It was very much in that time considered blue-collar. It still is, but it was really a blue-collar job. It was kind of a dead-end job.
EL: You were thought by your parents to be hurdling backwards in time.
ELee: Very much so, and you were serving. For my parents, they said to me, they said, “You’re being a servant. You’re choosing a life of servitude.” Of course, my rebuttal was, “Hey, you become an accountant, you’re still serving someone.” They didn’t want to hear that. I was kind of a smart aleck. They didn’t like those answers. There were no celebrity chefs back then. There was no ownership of your destiny, ownership of your career. You were basically just-
EL: An employee.
ELee: Yeah, you were just an employee, making money and probably doing drugs, which many of my peers were. I was, too, at some point. It was not considered something. Your parents didn’t go bragging to their friends about your job. It was something, especially for an immigrant family, who is very proud of their firstborn son. It’s a thing. It was something that was very upsetting to them, to the point where my dad did not talk to me for a long time.
EL: It’s funny. I see parallels between you and Roy Choi, another Korean-American, and David Chang, in that you … You said your father stopped talking to you for a long time. It must have been a very freighted relationship for many years.
ELee: My dad died a few years ago. I write about it in the book. He had never eaten a meal that I cooked in his entire life.
ELee: It wasn’t so much that … It wasn’t that he disowned me. It was just something that he just did not want to be a part of. He didn’t want to be a part. He did, luckily, see a part of my success, but even to that end, it just wasn’t something that he was very proud of. It wasn’t his dream.
EL: You talked about that he never really acknowledged. You didn’t have much of a relationship with him, right?
ELee: No. Again, some of it’s tragic. Part of it is, too, again, you choose your tribe. For many times, especially with people who choose artistic or creative outlets, your tribe usually does not include your family. You create your own family elsewhere.
EL: You speak in Buttermilk Graffiti about flying home from Seattle to be with your father in his last hours. You were sad for a lot of reasons, not just because he was dying, but also because you never bridged the gap.
ELee: Yeah. I just knew that there was this moment where I just kissed him on the forehead and said, “It’s okay.”
EL: We’re good.
ELee: Yeah. “I’m not mad at you,” but there is even to this day, I wish he had eaten something I cooked. I wish he had approved of something I … It’s a very, I always say, little boys just want the approval of their dads. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 50-year-old man or a 12-year-old boy. It’s something that you crave, and it’s something that I knew … I knew early on that it would never happen, but it’s something.
It was interesting writing that chapter. It’s probably the most personal chapter in the book, and it’s something that, it just made sense when I was talking about Seattle, because my dad died while I was … He got sick while I was on book tour in Seattle. I wrote that chapter. It was the fastest chapter that I wrote. It just kind of came out. When we were reviewing the manuscript before submitting it, I looked at it, because writing is very personal for me. I was just writing. It was just me and my editor. Six months later when the manuscript’s all done, I looked at it, and I said, “We should just cut this chapter out.” I really wasn’t … I didn’t want that chapter to go in.
EL: Because it was too revealing?
ELee: Yeah, and it wasn’t something that the rest of the book is framed around. It’s just kind of a one-off. There are some other personal stories, but that was really personal. Anyway, I’m glad she convinced me to leave it in there. One of the first things I did was I did this workshop at Stanford University. It was a creative writing workshop for people who are writing about their memoirs or … I don’t know. Memoirs. The professor said, “Do you mind reading this passage from that chapter?” Now, I had never read it out loud. I wrote it and I submitted it and then we proofread it, but I had never actually heard those words spoken out loud, because I never …
EL: Were you very moved?
ELee: I almost broke down in tears.
EL: I’m sure. It’s a very moving passage.
ELee: In front of these students, who are just here to do a workshop, and I’m just like … I start choking up. I’m like, “Oh, man. I’m not going to cry in front of these students.” It took everything I had. I made a promise to myself that I would never read that chapter out loud again.
EL: All right, so I’m not going to ask you to read that chapter, and yet, you had this freighted problematic relationship with your dad, but yet your relationship with your mom, as we got to see in your episode of Mind of a Chef, you were very, very close.
ELee: Yeah, yeah.
EL: Dare I say relaxed. It seems like you had a very comfortable relationship with her.
ELee: Yeah. What’s interesting is that a lot of that has developed after I became a chef. What’s interesting is as a son who has a relationship with his mother, at a certain point in adulthood, you lose or you run out of things to talk about. You live very different lives, myself included. There’s not really much … I’m not a part of her mahjong club and I don’t know a lot about what she does with her friends, but the one thing we have in common is food. She, subsequently, once she retired, she started cooking a lot. I think there was a little bit of guilt that she never really cooked for me a lot when she was younger, because she was busy working, and so she cooks a lot. We kind of sometimes just get on the phone and talk about food and recipes.
EL: Wow. That’s so great.
ELee: I’ll go, “What is that?” But we’re not really talking about food. We’re talking to each other.
EL: You’re connecting.
ELee: Yeah. We connect, but it’s like I can’t just call her. She can’t just call me up and say hi. She has to be like, “I need something. What is that thing that you did with the recipe you put in?” I’m like, “Ah, that was something like that.” Then we end up talking. It’s interesting that through food, I’ve been able to have a second chance at a relationship with my mom.
EL: Wow. That’s so interesting. Now, you were cooking to make money, even when you were in … You talk about cooking in diners. One of your restaurants in Louisville is kind of your version of a diner, right?
ELee: Yes. Definitely so.
EL: It’s called Whiskey Down?
ELee: Whiskey Dry.
EL: Whiskey Dry, which is a diner expression for dry rye toast, I believe.
ELee: Yes, exactly. Exactly.
EL: See, that’s not bad, right?
ELee: That’s not bad at all.
EL: What did you learn from cooking in diners?
ELee: Oh, my God, I learned everything. I learned everything. I learned how to deal with criminals coming into your restaurant. I learned how to be a cook and a bouncer at the same time. Back then, I was going through college and working my way through college working at a diner on 28th and Madison. There’s something about having … I always say, you don’t have to be smart to be a good chef, but you have to have a certain smarts. There’s a certain part of your brain that you need. You have to be able to juggle a lot.
I just remember working at this diner with these Latino cooks who had been there forever. There was no POS system. There was no organization. It was just, there were verbal orders, and they would come in, and I would work breakfast. It’s like eggs 32 over easy, two eggs scrambled all the way, whiskey down, and just calling out order after order after order. I just remember very early on that I could just remember the orders. It just wasn’t a thing.
It was funny. One of the first memories I have in the diner is the Latino cooks, who kind of were laughing at me at first. After a week went by, they actually were like, “All right.” They gave me a pat on the back and said, “You got this.” It wasn’t so much that I knew that I was going to be a great chef, but I just knew that being in a kitchen to me was not intimidating. In fact, I could easily rattle off the things. I could juggle a lot of things in my brain. It didn’t mean I was smart, because my grades in school weren’t that good, but that part of it, it gave me the confidence to go, “Okay, this is not that hard.” Granted, I was cooking eggs and toast and burgers, but it’s a progression. You start there, and you go on. It definitely peaked my curiosity to go, to say, “What else is out there? What else? What else?”
EL: Right. Did you feel at home when you were there?
ELee: I loved it.
EL: Even in the diner kitchen?
ELee: I loved every minute of it, even with the rats at 5:00 a.m. when I was trying to get the pancake batter ready.
EL: The rats, they don’t even have cash. They don’t even have anything to pay you with.
ELee: You’re in their house. They’re not intruders in your establishment. You’re in their house.
EL: How and when did you make the leap to having your own restaurant? You went to NYU, right?
ELee: NYU, yeah.
EL: You had already told your parents you wanted to be a chef, but did you tell them, “It’s okay. I’m going to graduate from college”?
ELee: Yeah. That was the one promise I made to them was I was going to have a degree from an American university. It’s funny. I ended up graduating from NYU, but I never went to graduation, because I got a job right after that traveling. They still were … I even still think today, they’re kind of suspicious that my diploma’s not real and it’s forged, because for them, not going to a ceremony … That was the whole thing, was the ceremony.
EL: So you didn’t do the cap and gown.
ELee: I never did, and I told them. I argued with them. I said, “Listen, I did. I got a diploma. I graduated.” The ceremony was not part of the deal. I graduated. They’re still suspicious.
EL: I think we should call NYU, and they’ll send you a violet cap and gown …
ELee: We should do that. We should.
EL: … so you can ship them to your mom.
ELee: We should do that, with class of whatever it was.
EL: Exactly. You started cooking in restaurants, and then you even … You talk about in one of the books about you actually had your own restaurant very briefly in Chinatown. What was that called, because you wouldn’t say?
ELee: It was called Clay. We opened in ’98, and then it was really interesting. I didn’t plan to … I was 25. I didn’t plan to open a restaurant. This was not my thing, but it was just this weird thing. I was walking down Chinatown, and there was this … Literally, the guy was putting up a for rent sign. I started talking to him. I was cooking. I was cooking at two different kitchens. I was doing everything. At that point, I was driven. I knew I was going to be a chef.
EL: In serious restaurants.
ELee: Yeah. We just started talking, and I said, “The rent is how much?” He was like, “I’ll give you this, and there’s an apartment space next door, and you can have it for $2,200 a month.”
ELee: We’re talking about 1,200 square feet. A little over 1,200 square feet for … I was like, “This is ridiculous.” It was a Chinese restaurant, so the kitchen, it didn’t need much work. I knew I wasn’t ready, and I knew I had no experience. I had no business doing it, but in my twisted head, I thought, “What if we did this and I made some money, and then I could take that money and enroll in actual cooking school?”
EL: It didn’t end so well, right?
ELee: No. We were doing really … Actually, we were doing really well, and we got tons of accolades in the New York Times and stuff that I just had no idea about the whole food media world. Then 9/11 happened, and that was in 2001. We were very close to 9/11. At the time, I was admittedly partying too much. I was losing focus, and this wasn’t the food that I wanted to cook. It was just something that I did, a nice little fun Korean barbecue joint, and we were doing well. After 9/11, my landlord came up to me and said, “Hey, by the way, your lease is up in two years, and your rent is going up.” At the time, it was almost $3,000 a month. He said, “It’s going up from $3,000 to $13,000,” for a small space. I saw the writing on the wall.
I had a friend of mine who died in the towers, and my girlfriend at the time left and moved to Italy. So just a lot of things happening. Also, I was just burnt out. I had done this thing to have fun, and it ceased to be fun. I was probably doing more extracurricular activities than actual cooking. So I reassessed my life and said, “This is not …” I just saw the writing on the wall, like real estate, this little neighborhood when I opened up was not called Nolita. I saw all these incredibly expensive boutiques popping up, and I thought, “This is not where I want to be.” So I just took a hiatus and went to Kentucky.
EL: How did you end up in Louisville?
ELee: Just complete serendipity. I went there. Someone suggested I go there. They knew a friend of a friend who needed a chef or needed some hands during Derby Week, which is always a very busy time of year. I’d always wanted to go to the Kentucky Derby. I’d always been a country music fan, and so I went down there on a whim, and I absolutely fell in love with it. It’s a funny story. I went down for Derby, so there was gorgeous women and beautiful hats and dresses and the flowers are blooming and there’s celebrities and cool people out. I said, “This is the coolest place in the world.” No one told me it’s not like that the other 51 weeks out of the year.
EL: Did you get past that? Did you learn to love Louisville? Louisville.
ELee: Louisville. Yes, it’s home. It’s home. No. The person I worked for at the time, I worked for him for a week. His name was Eddie Garber, and he had this beautiful restaurant, but he was old and wanted to retire. I literally spent one week with him, and at the end of the week, he said, “You should move down here and take over the restaurant.” I said, “You’re crazy. I just came down here for just to clear my head for a week and just wanted to hang out.” He said, “No, you’re going to do it.”
ELee: I went back to New York, and he was very persistent. He called me once every week just to catch up. I took about six months, and I was like, “You’re right. I have nothing here in New York. My lease is up. My life’s in shambles. I’m depressed. I don’t like cooking the food I’m cooking. I just need something.” I didn’t know what I needed or what I wanted. I just needed to get out of there, and I did. I said, “Listen, I’ll stay for six months. If I don’t like it, I can always move back.” Six months turned into 16 years.
EL: Wow. What an incredible story. There’s some serendipity there, isn’t there?
ELee: A lot of serendipity, and also, what I didn’t realize at the time, and I always tell people it wasn’t my intention. It wasn’t, but I moved to Louisville, Kentucky and fell in love with Southern food. I fell in love with the lore, the flavors, the stories, the people.
EL: Biscuits, fried chicken.
ELee: The whole gambit, which unlike a true Southerner, I never grew … I grew up in Brooklyn. I never grew up with that. I didn’t have fried chicken. I didn’t have all this stuff.
EL: New York is even now not a great fried chicken town.
ELee: No. I remember, maybe I was in Louisville at the time six months or so, and I went to a soul food restaurant and ate a bowl of collard greens. I just remember eating that, my first bowl of collard greens in Louisville, Kentucky and feeling like I found home in a bowl of collard greens.
ELee: That’s what kept me in Louisville. That’s what kept me there. It wasn’t necessarily that Louisville itself. It’s that the food and the whole idea of this food that transformed me. I felt like I found my voice there where I could sort of … Now, I could combine these two worlds and go I’m never going to cook traditional Southern food, because I’m not from the South. I’m never going to cook traditional Korean food. I’ve had all these experiences and very little of it’s actually Korean. But there is this amalgam of all these experiences and things that come together. I sort of play around with it.
EL: Right, which is the perfect segue to talking about Buttermilk Graffiti, which we haven’t talked that much about. So we’re going to wrap up this episode of Special Sauce, and then we’re going to keep talking for another episode.
EL: So long, Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next time. Thank you for coming, too, I should say. I’m rude, Ed, but thank you for coming.
ELee: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.