Frank Lee: A Charleston Culinary Legend
There is no other chef in Charleston who has mentored and impacted the careers of as many chefs as Frank Lee. His big mentees in the city include Kevin Johnson of The Grocery, Chris Stewart of The Glass Onion, and Russ Moore at Slightly North of Broad (S.N.O.B.). He has been working in the industry for more than 40 years and his reach is far and wide. It was a no-brainer to profile him as a Charleston Culinary Legend. With a new cookbook, The S.N.O.B. Experience, and recent retirement from cooking full-time in the kitchen, it is great to share more about his illustrious career.
The Daily Meal: Tell us about your career and some of the places you worked before coming to S.N.O.B.
Frank Lee: I started my restaurant career in Columbia, South Carolina, at an all-vegetarian restaurant I opened with friends in 1973, called 221 Pickens Street. It was very special, cutting-edge for its time. We grew our own sprouts, had a juice bar, and made our own tofu and yogurt. It was a very magical place.
We were pretty political in our approach to food. We staged two protests against the plutonium waste dump located in Barnwell, and had Jackson Browne perform. 221 Pickens Street was a hippy compound and a voice for counter-cultural ideas. Our motto was “food for people, not profit.” The most expensive meal was $3.50 despite “healthy” foods being really expensive. We had a food co-op, and to be a member you would have to work a two-hour shift. Those six years were very formative for me personally and my career as a chef.
That was a pretty amazing experience. Where did you go from there?
During that time in Columbia, I met Malcolm Hudson who eventually hired me to work at his upscale French restaurant Hudson’s. Since I was a vegetarian, he made me eat meat before I actually started. I met my wife, Robin, while cooking there, which was the highlight for sure.
In the ’80s, I moved to Chicago to train under Jovan Trboyevic at the French restaurant Le Perroquet, his formal, three-star establishment, and Les Nomades, his less formal bistro. There, I learned incredible techniques like using whole animals and cooking with sea urchins. We served decadent dishes often featuring ingredients like foie gras.
After that training, we came back to Columbia, and I thought I was a big deal. However, I could not raise any money to open my own place so I ended up being a server and a maître d’. Robin became pregnant and I really needed to get a better-paying job. Charleston seemed to be more happening, so we moved there. I went to interview with Jose DeAnacleto at Restaurant Million. He was only hiring French-trained chefs so that did not work out.
I was soon offered a job by a friend to come to Wild Dunes to help open the restaurant Veranda. After a year and a half, long-time friend and local writer/author Marion Sullivan recommended going to Washington, D.C., to work with Yannick Cam at Le Pavillon. We met, and he hired on the spot. Le Pavillon was right in the heart of things — two blocks from the White House. So here, I go from owning a hippie compound to cooking seven-course dinners that cost $150 without wines. It was very fancy and a complete transformation.
While working there, Frank got another call from Wild Dunes, a resort island off the coast of South Carolina, and was offered a great opportunity to return and become executive chef over two restaurants, a catering department, and more. He took it, moved back and his life was great. He even had an assistant. But Hurricane Hugo hit and wiped out the island.
Not having many options, he went on to open Guerilla Catering with friends. They did whatever they could for work including handling concessions for a newly opened entertainment venue, the King Street Palace. They managed that for a year, and it was a major financial success. They went on to manage Gaillard Auditorium’s concessions when it re-opened. Here he is again — going from cooking fine dining to popping popcorn and serving cheap boxed wine. It was a humbling experience to lose almost everything during the hurricane and it was then when he changed his priorities and put his family first. He also wanted to get back in the kitchen.
So, what did you do after the catering business?
After a year, I went to back to Restaurant Million and asked Jose for a job again. He hired me as sous chef and we got along great. He reminded me of Jovan and Yannick. I worked there a year and a half, during which time I met Dick Elliott. Dick approached me about coming to work at The Colony House. I was hesitant because so many chefs rotated in and out of there, and the food was always getting mixed reviews. But I liked Dick and manager David Marconi and thought it would be a great opportunity. I joined the restaurant, but we soon closed The Colony House to open Slightly North of Broad [at the end of 1993]. The rest is history.
Frank was a pioneer and really started the farm-to-table movement locally. He forged relationships with local farmers and fisherman and served local on his menu before chefs Mike Lata and Sean Brock were even cooking in Charleston.
What was S.N.O.B. like in the early days?
We were always multi-cultural in our approach — always showcasing the true essence of the Lowcountry. We loved serving what was fresh from the land — fresh okra, palmetto pigeon, triggerfish, shrimp, oysters, tomatoes. We made mostly everything from scratch.
But the business really decided what cuisine we served. Who and how many people came in determined what we could serve. Doing 150 covers a night, you can only serve so many things and do them well.
[Laughing] I wanted to be the tamale king but could not give it away. Crab-stuffed flounder, beef carpaccio, and shrimp and grits sold like crazy.
What were some of your signature dishes?
Well, anything local and seasonal was what we were best known for — whether it is seafood or produce. Some of our popular dishes were the Southern salad, barbecue tuna, and, of course, shrimp and grits in different variations.
What were some of the greatest moments at S.N.O.B.?
Spoleto USA is one of my favorite local events, and it was always a great joy to entertain the jazz musicians after their performances. Singer/guitarist Renato Braz was the first one to come late night and play music. He played until 4 a.m.
I also loved the relationships I built with locals who have been dining with us for decades. They are some of my favorite people of all time.
And the Tribute dinner the Charleston Wine + Food Festival organized a few years back was something I will never forget. It was a real honor.
What were some of the challenges you experienced over your time at S.N.O.B., good or bad?
All of the challenges at S.N.O.B. were good and based really on the growth Charleston has experienced. There is more competition in the city but the chef community has been very collaborative and cooperative, despite its growth. The best thing is that everyone supports each other and no one is out to harm anyone.
What were the biggest lessons you learned while working at Maverick Southern Kitchens (Dick Elliot’s restaurant group that owned many restaurants and related businesses)?
We had as many failures as successes: Slightly Up the Creek, High Hammock Pawley’s Island, and many more. Dick was smart enough to make David and I minority owners. I encourage chefs today to get as much ownership as you can so they can take more risks. I learned a ton from Dick. He was transparent and involved us in every line item, budget, etc. Our opinions were very important to him, and he was extremely honest. He was a real teacher and taught me the business side of things.
Who are some of your mentors?
Malcolm Hudson, Jovan Trboyevic, and Yannick Cam. All of these mentors were nomads in their own right — they marched to a different drum. They were amazing chefs but considered themselves more than chefs and lived very colorful, complicated lives. They were loners and went against the grain with everything they did in the kitchen and out.
What are your thoughts about the changes in the city culinary-wise over the years?
I am very encouraged about the growth. The younger chefs are really talented and bringing a lot to the table. My hope is there is more diversity in the approach to regional cuisine and its history.
Tell us more about the new cookbook, The S.N.O.B. Experience: Slightly North of Broad.
It is a compilation of S.N.O.B. classics, including long-running seasonal plates, sides dishes, and sauces that have played an important role on the menu since 1993. The book shares insights into me and the personal relationships I formed with local farmers and purveyors.
Where do you like to eat in Charleston?
H&L, Bertha’s, La Taqueria taco truck, XBB, and FIG.
What do you cook the most?
Whatever is fresh and local.
What are your plans for the future?
To be supportive and a conduit of positive energy.
Anything else to add?
The real success for me through all of this has been watching the alumni of S.N.O.B. go on to be successful — with their family lives and with their careers and respected businesses. The most important thing for me was witnessing those chefs excel; not the last meal I served or the acclaim I received.