“I wake up and don’t know what city I’m in,” Edward Lee told us when we caught up with him on the phone last week to chat about the dishes that have inspired him and defined his career. We’d heard stories about his love affair with bourbon and wondered if a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle might have gotten the better of him, but in this case the whiskey wasn’t to blame for the temporary memory loss. Lee is in the midst of a whirlwind 20-city tour promoting his new cookbook, Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, and the inside of hotel rooms are all starting to look the same. Still, he’s not complaining—as a recent father (his daughter, Arden, was born last month) and the chef-owner at Louisville, KY’s acclaimed 610 Magnolia, Lee relishes the opportunity to steal seven hours of uninterrupted sleep. “I’m not going out and partying,” he laughs.
With its creative Korea-meets-American South recipes, vintage photos, and snapshots from a Brooklyn childhood, Smoke & Pickles is a perfect introduction to the smart cultural balancing act that has earned Lee rave reviews and three James Beard nominations for Best Chef: Southeast. The dishes are simultaneously familiar and offbeat: kabocha squash mac ‘n’ cheese with a pork rind crust, oysters with brown bourbon butter, and kimchi poutine are just a few of the standouts. And in between the recipes, the book is packed with insights into Lee’s Korean-American upbringing; his transformative, Kentucky Derby-inspired move to Louisville; and ruminations on how these poignant life chapters forged his own distinct take on market-driven modern American cooking.
Lee is a man who seamlessly straddles two cultural worlds with his food, whether it’s an oxtail stew with lima beans that harkens back to the casseroles his grandmother once made, or a Mutsu apple tempura with caramel made from that Southern staple, buttermilk. He is a conscientious chef, working closely with local farmers, but one who avoids the holier-than-thou posturing that often comes along with that approach—anyone who watched Top Chef: Texas knows that Lee is a down-to-earth dude who has as much reverence for karaoke as he does for cabbage. He’s someone you’d be happy to find yourself next to at a bar, trading stories over a glass of bourbon.
Some of those tales, no doubt, would revolve around the meals that have informed his sensibilities and shaped his life in the kitchen. Here, Lee recounts the 10 dishes that have left an indelible mark on his culinary mind, from a humble bowl of rice to a mind-blowing Lyonnaise roast chicken.