Edward Lee, a contestant on Bravo! TV’s Top Chef season nine (Texas), is chef and owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville. A native New Yorker, Lee attended the Kentucky Derby in 2003 and decided he wanted to stay in the area, buying the restaurant with business partner Brook Smith. Lee was a finalist for The Best Chef Award Southeast from the James Beard Foundation in 2011.
FE&S: What influences did food have on your childhood?
Edward Lee: Food mattered because I always knew it was grounded in a tradition that was so much beyond just a meal. My grandmother would talk about how she learned these soups from this person or that person in Korea, which made it seem like some incredible, magical, historical place, especially growing up in a small apartment in Brooklyn. It was always the smells for me. Korean food is so pungent and I always knew dinner was ready when the apartment smelled of many different layers of funk. I can still identify those smells as clearly as they were yesterday. As a child I was embarrassed by those smells that were so different from the smells of my friends' homes, but now I can't get enough of them.
FE&S: Any favorite dishes?
Edward Lee: A dish that still reminds me of childhood is cheap ramen with kimchi. I grew up with such a rich array of traditional Korean foods, I am always recreating them. They take a lifetime to perfect, especially the simple dishes like daen-jang (Korean miso) soup or ddeokbokki (spicy rice cakes). My favorite is the humblest of dishes — kimchi jjigae — a soup made from overly ripe kimchi and pork.
FE&S: What is your favorite food memory?
Edward Lee: I tried to make a duck recipe from a cookbook I got out of the school library. I think I was 12 or 13 years old. I got the duck from Chinatown where they generally don't gut out the innards. The cookbook assumed that I was buying a dressed bird. The duck came out perfectly and I presented it to my family but when we cut into it a nice green bile oozed out. It was a lesson learned.
FE&S: What was the biggest "fail" dish you've ever cooked?
Edward Lee: I was hired to stock a sailboat's pantry on an adventure from Trinidad to the Galapagos Islands. The night before their journey, I made a meal of curried goat, but I bought the goat from a suspect market and it had been drizzling the whole day so the outdoor spit would not light correctly. After about six hours of slow cooking, I thought it had come out alright but the next morning everyone got sick and had to delay their trip.
FE&S: Do you ever wish you had gone to culinary school?
Edward Lee: I had a choice to spend my money on culinary school or spend six months in Europe. I chose the latter. I might have had a more concrete education at culinary school but I don't think I could have gotten the diversity of education about culture, respect for food, and the need to travel without having gone to Europe.
FE&S: How do you feel about the state of culinary schools today?
Edward Lee: It saddens me sometimes when I see the polished and unrealistic careers that some culinary schools are promising at exorbitant tuition prices. The reality is long hours for very little pay until your big break, but many young people who are in so much debt can’t wait it out because of their loan repayments. I think the answer is more scholarships for gifted students.
FE&S: Who was your best boss and why?
Edward Lee: Frank Crispo in New York. I was a young punk and he kicked my [butt] into an adult without ever making it personal. He taught me how to be a true professional and a generous leader.
FE&S: What three things did you learn from your worst boss?
Edward Lee: Yelling and screaming accomplishes nothing. Never party at your own restaurant. Never get intimate with your own staff.