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: Gardens in restaurants are popular these days. Do you grow any of your own ingredients for the restaurant?
Edward Lee: We have an herb garden across the street from the restaurant and grow a few tomatoes, zucchinis and peppers.
FE&S: Do you work with local farmers to grow food as well?
Edward Lee: We rely on a farm in Indiana for just about all our produce in spring and summer. They are very careful about my needs and we talk every week about the size and ripeness of their harvest. When possible, I will go out to the farm to hand pick the vegetables I want.
FE&S: What ingredient do you use most frequently in the kitchen?
Edward Lee: It changes with the seasons and from year to year as our cuisine develops but right now we are really into sorghum, chicory, farm-churned butter, local chestnuts, heirloom grits and pine nut oil. A must-have spice is paprika, smoked and sweet. A pinch of it adds a personality to almost any dish. And I’ve been experimenting with fermented black garlic lately. It is so pungent but adds punch to sauces.
FE&S: When harsh winters strike, how does this affect your ingredient sourcing?
Edward Lee: We go for more root vegetable dishes but we also do a lot of preserving and pickling in summer so we can use those products through the lean winter months. Also, dishes rely more on spices versus herbs.
FE&S: Are you getting tired of the farm-to-table hysteria?
Edward Lee: Labels are always problematic especially when one tries to encapsulate an entire cuisine or movement in a catchphrase. But it's still important to keep the motivation behind the label going. I still see a whole lot of “farm-to-table” restaurants with large-scale distribution trucks outside delivering their pantry. I think honest restaurants should keep driving the farm-driven cuisine philosophy home, and keep pushing the envelope and, label or no label, keep on doing the things that started this revolution back when Alice Waters and Jeremiah Towers were at the forefront.
FE&S: When it comes to molecular gastronomy, when does it work and when does it fail?
Edward Lee: It fails once the chefs are having more fun than the customers.
FE&S: What’s the most exciting aspect of your job?
Edward Lee: What I do every day is nurture relationships — with my staff, my clients, my purveyors, farmers, media, investors, etc. The more energy I pump into having a good relationship with these many people, the more I see results. It’s invigorating.
FE&S: How much time do you spend in your dining room?
Edward Lee: I try to talk to at least five tables every night. I try to give three minutes to each table. That’s 15 minutes that returns a lot in customer loyalty.
FE&S: Do you have any memorable kitchen injuries?
Edward Lee: I had a new cook burn my arm with a hot sauté pan. I didn’t say a thing all night. At the end of service, I simply turned to him and said, “Tonight, you burned me. Next time, I burn you back.” It never happened again.
FE&S: What’s the first thing you do when you get to work?
Edward Lee: I clean for about 15 minutes, whatever needs cleaning, in the kitchen or bar. It gets me in a rhythm to work.
FE&S: How has personal travel influenced your career?
Edward Lee: I rarely travel when it’s not career related. Also it doesn’t matter where I travel, I always find something novel. Even if it’s just a funny vending machine or wild flowers by the side of the road. The three most inspiring places I’ve visited were San Sebastian, New Orleans and South Korea. In the U.S., I draw inspiration from the freshness of cuisine in Napa, the boldness of the Carolinas, and the German influence of the Midwest.
FE&S: In your opinion, what’s the number one essential tool you think all chefs and cooks should have in their kitchens?
Edward Lee: A heavy cast iron skillet, well-seasoned, all crusted up on the sides, that says “I’m not afraid of high heat!”
Click here to read part one of the interview with Edward Lee.
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