When chef Edward Lee walked into the kitchen of Louisville restaurant 610 Magnolia 10 years ago, he was looking to explore the opportunity to participate and propel an emerging culinary scene –– if just for the week while he was in town for Derby. A New Yorker at the time, Lee felt a deep connection to Kentucky and its southern, but irreverent, roots. The food culture, notably German, Jewish and Southern, added a layer of vocabulary to his diverse culinary vernacular.
As he tells it, he walked into that kitchen and never left.
Lee is now the owner and chef of two highly acclaimed, James Beard Foundation-nominated Louisville restaurants, 610 Magnolia and Milkwood, which embody the distinctive cuisine known as “American South.” The former serves nuances of the cuisine while the latter speaks the Southern language on a plate.
In his early years, Lee –– a three-time James Beard Chef of the Year nominee, Food Network Iron Chef Champion and high finishing Bravo Top Chef –– was looked after in a Brooklyn kitchen by his traditional Korean grandmother; he later trained in the finest French kitchens. However, it is Southern fare –– particularly smoked and pickled –– that resonates with him.
“Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen,” Lee’s candid and acclaimed cookbook, reveals connections in traditional Korean and southern foodways, through highly introspective narratives and recipes.
“Smoke is an intersection that connects my two worlds,” said Lee, who went so far as to incorporate his love of smoky southern notes into the special edition bourbon/rye blend that he co-invented alongside his friend and founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon Trey Zoeller. A first in the bourbon industry, the chef- and distiller-collaboration was invented with the bold flavors of Lee’s cookbook in mind.
Written after Lee competed on season nine of “Top Chef,” “Smoke and Pickles” explains that when it comes to American South, “the culinary movement is looking inward, not outward for inspiration.” At a time when the region is experiencing a trend in crafting and preserving, Lee adds to the regional conversation by offering recipes that convey thoughtfulness with seasonal suggestiveness from a Kentucky perspective.
In addition to sourcing from Kentucky growers and producers, Lee’s grows fresh herbs and produce in a chef’s garden, which are used in creating pickles and accoutrements served at both restaurants. When asked which item he looks forward to preserving after the long winter months, “ramps, garlic shoots and corn top the list.”
Korean superstitions and Southern anecdotes are weaved throughout “Smoke & Pickles,” which inspires both a good meal and conversation with friends and family. The writing reveals Lee’s playful side, conveying the sentiment Southern food is ironic: overindulgent yet simple. Notably, Lee embraces tradition and encourages the reader, professional and home chef alike, to discover their own path of food culture intersections.
“A chef from Atlanta contacted me to tell me the book inspired him to incorporate his Jewish heritage into his cooking,” Lee said.
“That was a wonderful compliment.”