It is just 10 AM but Edward Lee’s restaurant complex in central Louisville is buzzing. Gravel crunches underfoot in the alley as guys in white smocks unload boxes of food from a delivery truck. Another worker emerges from a tall red structure and pops into the greenhouse next door. In a sweatshirt, jeans and Vans, Chef Lee is next on the scene, walking quickly from his wine studio to a two-story charcoal clapboard building with a yellow door. This is 610 Magnolia, Lee’s flagship restaurant where tasting menus of avant-garde Southern cuisine are served. There is a bite-sized BLT on the dinner menu, made with waygu beef tongue, Johnny Cake, sauerkraut kimchi and gochujang, as well as potato gnocchi with smoked tomato gravy, rabbit confit, ricotta and tiny currant tomatoes from the greenhouse. The food is elegant, tasty and unique, and best eaten with a sip of good bourbon or fine wine. “We’re navigating a different world,” says Lee. “I’m not changing Southern food. I’m just adding another layer of vocabulary on top of what’s already there and what’s already respected. We just kind of change it up a little bit.”
Abbie Fentress Swanson: How would you describe your cuisine?
Chef Edward Lee: I don’t know. That’s always been a difficult question. I cook Southern food, and I am very much influenced by my native cooking, which is Korean. But also in a broader sense the cuisines of Asia, which I find to be endlessly interesting. That’s what I cook. But I never try to pigeonhole it because at 610 Magnolia, we just do anything and everything that surrounds us. Part of what I see in modern cooking, in American cooking, is this idea of getting away from the elevator pitch of who you are as a chef. My food is like my story on a plate. So I cook the influences of whatever I’ve had in my entire life. I spent six months in France so it’s inevitable that some of that creeps in, although I’m not by any means a Francophile and I don’t cook French food. But it creeps in there. My wife is German and I love German food, and we go out to eat at German restaurants all the time. So that creeps in there. I never want to be an exclusionary chef where I say, ‘Well, because I do this, I’m never going to have sauerkraut on my menu.’ That just doesn’t work for me.
AFS: On your menu at MilkWood in Downtown Louisville, you have bourbon pulled pork bibimbap, collards and kimchi, and shumai deviled eggs. How do you decide what kind of mashup is going to work?
EL: A lot of it is experimentation, obviously, a lot of it is trial and error. A lot of it’s just sitting around and thinking about the histories of these foods and how they come, and what form they come in and how they arose out of history. You take the collards and kimchi, for example. Collards arose out of a necessity. It was basically a poverty food that arose because you had to take this basically inedible, tasteless vegetable and make it flavorful to feed a lot of people economically. And that was the beauty of collards. And I looked at that and I thought, ‘Wow, that really reminds me of how cabbage came to be in Korea when, post-war, you had nothing to eat.’ You had rice and you had cabbage, and so you had to fight for a way to make cabbage delicious so that you could fill your belly and feel somewhat good about yourself at the end of a meal because all you were eating was maybe some dried fish. The two just made sense philosophically for me and I thought, ‘Well, why don’t we put the two together and see what happens?’ And low and behold, it was delicious. So sometimes it happens that way from a more intellectual place, and sometimes honestly, it happens by accident. Like the shumai. I like deviled eggs but I like the yolk more than the white part of it. ‘What can we do?’ You just start riffing and you say, ‘Shumai, a little different wrapper.’ And so those things happen. They all happen for different reasons. One thing we never do is force it. For everything you see on the menu, there’s probably five or six things that didn’t make it on the menu. Like coconut grits. We were like, ‘It just doesn’t work. Something about it seems forced.’ I really cook from the heart and I cook from a place of meaning, and I never want it to be kitschy or campy or forced.
AFS: Talk to me a bit more about Southern food, and how you’ve seen it change since you’ve been here in Louisville.
EL: I’ve been in Louisville for 14 years now. Louisville, 14 years ago, was not a “Southern city” in terms of its culinary identity. Now you can not throw a stone without hitting a fried chicken shack. Chow-chow, biscuits, I mean, you name it. It’s a good thing. Everything comes in cycles and pendulum swings and we’re seeing this revival, if you will, of Southern food and I love it. I love Southern food. I’ve always said, ‘I’m not a Southern food chef.’ And I guess in some ways, I’ve helped to influence that. I remember 14 years ago, [we were] using local sorghum and none of my guests knew what sorghum was. And I was like, ‘It’s [been] growing in your backyard for generations.’ We were the first to take bourbon barrels and smoke them and use them in different appliques. So we did all that. But I don’t think I’ve ever served a plate of shrimp and grits in any of my restaurants, at least not in the traditional way. So it’s been an interesting thing for my evolution because we just keep pushing and doing what we do, and then all around us is this huge Southern food revival. Not just in Louisville, but in the country and globally. You could go to Korea and there’s Southern food. There’s like a barbecue restaurant in Korea that’s doing really well … I think the biggest mission for me with Southern food is to always espouse that the American South is an incredibly vast region. Right? You’re talking about the Florida Panhandle to Arkansas to Kentucky to the Carolina coast. That’s massive. You can’t say that this entire vast span of land has one cuisine. They don’t have one culture and they don’t even have one language. My mission is always to identify regions: You’re not going to get the same food in the Delta as you are going to get in the Carolina coast as you are going to get in Appalachia or even Western Kentucky.
AFS: You just wrote an article about fermentation for Cured Magazine. Any new projects you’d like to talk about?
EL: We’re constantly fermenting things in the kitchen. We’ve got some miso that we’re making out of black-eyed peas. We always do a lot of our own vinegars. So we’ve got some persimmon vinegar … we ferment chilies for our hot sauce and that’s got a long fermentation time. We’re actually about to release our own hot sauce, which we’ve had for, gosh, two years now, but we’ve never sold it outside the restaurant. (It’s gotten to sort of a tipping point where people are starting to threaten us if we don’t sell it so we’re, like, working on design labels for it right now actually.) So that’s fun. We have a greenhouse and so we we do a lot of work with that. It’s been fun to really take a lot of the byproduct of the greenhouse and do fermentation work on it, whether it’s like tomato leaves or stems and things, and create different flavors. Obviously, winter is a bleak season out here in Kentucky. I think people always think that Kentucky is warm all the time because we’re in the South but we’re actually closer to the Midwest. We also have some fun things that we’re doing with chocolate, where we’re sort of double-fermenting some chocolate and seeing how that turns out. We haven’t had any results yet. A lot of these things are fun, but they take a long time to come to fruition. It’s like raising a kid and you hope they turn out to be responsible teenagers, but you never know. They’re in the incubation period right now. We finished up a really wonderful fermentation documentary that we shot in the spring, and we hope to have it out there sometime in March of 2017. Definitely look out for that.
AFS: I have tasted 35 different whiskeys in the five days I’ve been in Louisville. What’s your favorite?
EL: Wow. That’s like asking which child of yours you love the most. That’s a really unfair question. My rote answer is always my favorite bourbon is the one in my hand, which is usually the case. It’s an interesting thing because bourbon, by its definition, has to follow some very strict legal rules: It has to be aged four years; it has to be in charred new oak barrels; it has to be 51-percent corn. To me, there really is no such thing as a bad bourbon. So you have your favorites: I love Jefferson’s Reserve. I love Angel’s Envy. Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Pappy. The Willett brands are great. There’s a new one called Rabbit Hole that’s just killer. All these are all great. To say one’s a favorite? I think if you live in the state of Kentucky, it’s hard to say because you have so many to choose from, and my favorite changes like every other night because there’s just such an abundance here. So I’m not going to give you a straight answer on that.
Photo of 610 Magnolia (top) by Stan Lee, Fried Chicken Sandwich Studios and 2016 James Beard Foundation visual storytelling award winner. This post made possible with help from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.