Norman Van Aken’s Kitchen Conversations: Edward Lee
Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef–restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is the one in a regular series of Kitchen Conversations — informal but revealing interchanges with key culinary figures — that Van Aken will be contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Meditations for us.
Brooklyn-born Edward Lee is the chef-owner of 610 Magnolia and the newer MilkWood, both in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Succotash in Washington, DC. After studying English Literature at NYU, he decided to pursue a culinary career at age 22 which took him to France and New York before he settled in Louisville after discovering the city on a 2001 cross-country road trip. Lee is renowned for his creative and innovative dishes that celebrate local ingredients, and he’s been nominated for James Beard Awards (Best Chef: Southwest) in 2011 and 2012. Lee has also competed on Iron Chef America as well as the ninth season of Top Chef, and he can currently be seen touring the country on PBS’ Mind of a Chef.
Norman Van Aken: What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying? Where were you?
Edward Lee: It was definitely some of the soups my grandmother made as a child. We were pretty poor growing up so we never went out to dinner, rarely ate luxury things like beef or seafood. I went to public school so I had horrible lunches. I remember waiting eagerly for dinner because my grandmother would make amazing things out of cheap scraps of ingredients. I loved this seaweed soup she would make with tofu and pork. It was so cheap to make that I could have as much as I wanted.
Are you the first chef in your Family?
Yes. I would call my grandmother a better cook than I would ever be, but as far as a profession, I am the first.
When did you start cooking?
I always cooked as a kid, from the time I was 10 or 11. I always spent afternoons in the kitchen with my grandmother. As a teen I always worked in restaurants to make cash, and I got my first stint in the kitchen at 16 at a diner. Professionally, I started working in my first "professional" kitchen when I was 22.
When did you realize that it was serious to you?
In my first job in a real kitchen I was a slacker, I had long hair, I wore mascara, I was partying a lot. After 3 months, the chef got so upset with me he backed me up against a wall and got so close to my face I could see his nose hairs. He wouldn't fire me but he told me I would never last in his kitchen, that I was wasting everyone's time. I was sure I was going to quit anyway. I hated the restaurant. But for some reason, the next day, I cut off all my hair, stopped wearing makeup, and showed for work an hour early every day for the next two weeks. Chef wouldn't even talk to me but I wasn't going to quit until I proved him wrong. I still have no idea why I cared so much because I'd been fired from many other jobs before and it never bothered me. I guess that was a turning point for me. I started to take the work seriously. I stayed on for another year and to this day, I am still friends with Chef.
Where were you cooking when that moment took place? Describe the place.
It was a restaurant called Chez Es Saada, a hip, trendy French Moroccan place in the East Village that was patronized nightly by a lot of fashionable pretty people. It was more a club than a restaurant most nights and there was always be a model prancing through the kitchen or some famous people blowing air kisses at each other while they hung out in the kitchen. Chef tried to protect us from the mayhem as best he could. Every night after service was basically a cocaine-fueled party that lasted as long as the managers wanted to hang out. It was a tough environment to try to be a serious chef but it also was a brazen introduction into the world of temptation. You either succumbed to it or not. There was no neutral zone.
What was the first dish you made that you felt proud of?
My first restaurant was near Chinatown and I used to go every afternoon and try to recreate all the crazy dishes I ate at these hole-in-the-wall restaurants. One of the first things I made were duck confit dumplings in a broth I made with the bones fortified with curry and dried mushrooms. I topped it with Thai basil and some fancy oils that I thought was really cool back then. I was proud of it because I made everything from scratch, the confit, the curry, the broth, even the dumpling skins. It took forever to prep that dish but I felt like it was a dish that I could stand behind and call myself a real chef.
Do you feel this kind of life caused you to sacrifice having a normal life?
I never defined anyone's life in terms of normal or abnormal. I guess what the majority of people do is considered normal. I guess chefs are in a minority with regards to how we structure our days to day lives. But I have observed from afar the lives of what most of society would consider "normal" and to me, it is an exercise in insanity.
Did you ever come close to quitting the business and finding something more sane?
If I ever quit this business, I wouldn't know what to do with myself, literally.
What was your arc in terms of the first kinds of cookery you loved and how it morphed over your career?There are so many similarities, in flavors and in frugality and humility, between Southern food and Korean food that I find the convergence of the two to be completely natural.
I grew up in a typical first generation Korean household, so every meal was some variation of traditional Korean food. So I guess that was my first love. As a young chef, I immersed myself in French cuisine, culminating in a summer cooking all over France. I worked in a few French restaurants but I knew pretty early on that I didn't want to spend my life cooking that cuisine. I remember how all of the young chefs in the kitchen would spend all day prepping perfect French food and then during staff meal, we'd mess around making these crazy delicious concoctions that had no rules. Once I realized that cooking staff meal excited me more than the dinner menu, I knew it was time to move on. I wanted to learn the food of my youth, so I spent the next few years exploring Korean food and by extension the foods of Japan, China, and Southeast Asia, as I believe that they are all connected. I spent 5 years cooking the cuisines of Asia but it was only after I moved to Kentucky and started my journey through the American South that I feel like I found my true voice. It was a strange experience but studying Southern food always felt like coming home to me, even though I never grew up or had any connection to the South growing up. But there are so many similarities, in flavors and in frugality and humility, between Southern food and Korean food that I find the convergence of the two to be completely natural. That is what I find myself most stimulating to me today.
Who is the most important American-born cookbook author of the past 50 years, in your estimation? Why?
I think every cook of my generation read and studied Jacques Pepin's La Technique. I never went to cooking school, and to me his book was an essential part of my education. It was clear, concise, but free of pomp and circumstance. It was and remains today, still one of the must-reads for every young cook. Add to that the years and years he has dedicated to teaching, and I can't think of any other culinary professional that even comes close.
Who is the most important chef of the past 100 years? Why?
There's too many to really narrow it down to one so I will just say that this is a highly personal choice. Edna Lewis was not supposed to be a chef, she was not groomed to be a cultural icon, she lived a diverse and tumultuous life that is so different from the calculating and narrow life of a chef today. But she became more than just a chef, more than just an iconic cookbook writer, she quietly took the established cooking world by storm and held a mirror to this country, bringing to light an entire genre of cookery that had pretty much been ignored. I cannot think about the evolution of American cookery without thinking about her contributions, which are far more than just cuisine; It brings up issues of history, culture, race, bridging gaps and ultimately, uniting us through food. And she did it all with humility, grace, and an intelligence rarely seen in our profession. She is everything I want to be.
Who is the most mischievous chef you have ever known?
I have never met a chef who wasn't mischievous.
If you could go out for drinks and dinner with a food person (can be living or from the past in this hypothetical question!) who would it be, and why?
This may sound unconventional but I would love to dine with Marco Pierre White. It would be a complete mess and probably end up in a shouting match and broken glasses. How much fun would that be?
What was the best live concert that you have ever been to?
Recently saw My Morning Jacket with a slew of guest musicians in Mexico, killing it on a stage set in front of a beach of crashing waves playing until 4 a.m., drinking a rare bottle of Siete Misterios mezcal. That's tough to beat.
What band, living or dead, do you regret never having seen?
Townes Van Zandt. I missed him by a couple of years. But I probably own the largest collection of Townes bootlegs. His live shows were so much better than his recordings. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes heartbreaking. My grandmother died on the very day that Townes did. I was really close to my grandmother and I had spent the whole day in the hospital. That night, I was exhausted and emotional. The radio was doing a tribute to Townes and I remember just listening to the whole tribute thinking, “What are these amazing lyrics I'm listening to?” The next day, I went to a record store and bought every CD they had. Been a huge fan ever since.
What food or ingredient do you adore?
Hard to narrow it down but I adore gochujang, the fermented Korean chili paste. I love buttermilk too. And fish sauce, sorghum. Persimmon vinegar is my new obsession too.
Is Thanksgiving overrated, in terms of food and drink? What is your Thanksgiving dinner these days?
No, it's the best. I have a young daughter now so we do the works at Thanksgiving. All the sides, fresh cranberry sauce, gravy, several pies. We don't do turkey, though. Cornish game hens are a great way to do small birds when you have a small family. And really, they taste better than turkey. The best thing about it is having leftovers for a week. On a personal note, I always read a few chapters from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee during the holidays, it is a reminder that we have to also look at the disturbing parts of history as we celebrate the glorious ones. It's a really hard book to read but it's one that is necessary.
What food, drink, or ingredient will never enter your body again?
I'll try anything twice but I will say I had balut in Vietnam and it was pretty hard to stomach. Balut is the partially fertilized chicken or duck egg that is served boiled. So you kind of get a hard-boiled egg but with a beak and feathers growing out of it.
Where in the world would you like to dine now, and why?
Fergus Henderson has changed the perception of what is acceptable to eat for the modern world. Which is crazy, because it comes from a man who seems to have been pulled out of a long gone century. I grew up eating so much offal but we didn't call it that. We just called it dinner. Once I got into the profession of cooking fancy food, I stopped eating all that good stuff. Fergus made it okay again. I would love to make a pilgrimage to St John.
Do you feel culinary schools are preparing young folks for a life as a chef?
I can't speak for every culinary school out there, but I feel like there’s a proliferation of pseudo cooking schools that are ripping off young kids with a false dream and a high tuition. Almost all cooking schools these days will accept anyone so long as they have the money or are willing to sign away their life for a loan that will take many years to pay off without any kind of entry exam or qualification standards. They are doing an injustice to young kids and to the profession.
What part of your body has taken the biggest beating over the years in the kitchens?
Ankles and back. Like most. No surprise here.
What famous guests have you enjoyed cooking for the most?
I've cooked for a lot of high profile guests who come through Kentucky for the Derby, it's always a star-studded affair. I don't really cook differently for them than for anyone else. But I will say chefs are a different breed. I always take care of my own. It is an honor to cook for other chefs, famous or not. Patricia Wells was delightful beyond belief. Mario Batali was larger than life and as charming as he was funny. Bobby Flay's horse won the Breeder's Cup and we were thrilled to cook for him and his crew.
Which guests (famous or otherwise) will not be welcome back, and what did they do to get fired?
I've been lucky, in the past 10 years, I've only had to eliminate three guests and both were for the same reason: treating my staff poorly. I have a zero tolerance policy for that sh*t. Luckily, it happens so rarely I don't lose too much faith in humanity. I've had a customer get so drunk he jumped into the driver's seat of someone else's limo and drove it around the block twice before nearly crashing it into my front door. That guy is allowed back into my restaurant. But the guy that threw a wine cork at my waitress is not.
Favorite food movie of all time? Food scene?
Tampopo is my favorite food movie. It is bright, hilarious, and a love letter to ramen. The other scene I love is the prison scene in Goodfellas when Ray Liotta is describing how wise guys eat better in prison. I love the shot of Vinnie slicing a garlic clove with a razor. I think the recipe for that pasta sauce actually came from Scorsese's mom. Now that's attention to detail.
Is ‘molecular’ or ‘modernist cuisine’ something you feel has made cuisine better?
"Better" is a loaded word. Every influential movement in the food world is part of the culinary evolution. Some may agree with it and others not. I'm not particularly fond of a bunch of narcissistic chefs taking ten hours to turn a bunch of beautiful carrots into some variation on textures that taste, well, just like carrots. But having said that, there are important discoveries and tools that are indisputably important to the culinary landscape. I couldn't care less if foams go away, but the innovative uses for agar and xanthan gum will be with us for a long, long time. Sous vide has changed how we cook proteins. The most important thing the Modernist movement has done is to allow us to shed the dominant notions of cooking techniques that were in place at the time and liberate younger chefs to unleash their creativity on a whole new generation of diners. Just like Nouvelle Cuisine did a generation ago. And I'm sure will happen again in years to come.
If it all came down to the world knowing your life’s work via one dish — like an author via a single book they’d written — what dish would be the one that you would choose you created or best became known for?
Smoked short ribs with black barbecue sauce. It combines my love for American barbecue with my passion for Asian flavors that go into the barbecue sauce. It is both familiar and different at the same time.
You’ve created a buffet meal so you can sit and join your three chosen guests from all of history. What items did you cook, and who are your three guests?
Steamed clams with hot sauce, pork dumplings with lots of ginger in them, smoked beef short ribs with black barbecue sauce, a really fresh seasonal succotash with corn and beans and beautiful raw tomatoes, lots and lots of pickles — cucumbers and kimchi and radish and garlic shoots, and fennel and carrots and beets. For dessert I'd serve up a hummingbird cake with lots of bourbon spiked into the batter.
I'd invite M.F.K. Fisher, Edna Lewis, and Julia Child. Women always make better dinner company than men.
If you had not made it as a chef — and money were not an issue — what profession would you choose?
I'd probably try to make it as a writer.
Would you want your child (or a niece or nephew) to become a chef?
I'm torn on this one. I think it's a great profession but a hard life.
You and I have had some conversations on the word and understanding of the term I introduced; Fusion Cuisine. Would you walk us through your thoughts on what that term means to you?
Fusion is a word that is pretty much always used inaccurately and so I avoid it when talking about my own food. That doesn't mean that it isn't important or relevant. It signifies a key moment in the history of American cuisine, a time and a place where the movement was not just revolutionary, but really changed the course of restaurant food, specifically fine dining, forever.
What most people do not understand is that, fusion, in the sense that you (Norman) defined it, was not simply about ingredients or flavors, it was about finding common ground in the techniques and cultures that were considered dominant or high (Occidental) and the ones that were deemed outside or “other.” It was about understanding that the technique of a Latino grandmother making ceviche was just as important and profound as a French chef making a mother sauce, that "home cooking” could find a place in the grand kitchens of European-trained chefs. Not only was it new, it was necessary for America to evolve because until then, the great restaurants in America were for the most part translations of European cuisines. Fusion cuisine blurred the rigid definitions of "ethnic" or "authentic" food to create a hybrid that worked in specific geographic regions where you had an immigrant culture influencing the established one. There was a history and a relevance to it in places like Miami, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and it quickly influenced the rest of the country.
And then came the imposters. To take random distant cuisines and "fuse" them together to create a new gimmicky menu is the antithesis of what the word “Fusion” represented. A French-Mexican-Japanese café is a meaningless misinterpretation of the movement. Unfortunately, it is what the word came to represent. In the truest sense of the word, Fusion was so successful, so inherent in our understanding of what we wanted American cuisine to be, that it became obsolete. When asked about it today, I reply that all American cuisine is fusion. All that we do is to blend and appropriate cultural codes for our own purposes to create a personal cuisine that is hopefully as diverse as we are in our experiences. That is the majestic intricacy of the word Fusion, but for me it will always be linked to a time in history when the country was emerging from a European dominant restaurant culture to one that we can now see all around us that is as diverse as our immigrant culture. To me, this is the defining characteristic of American cuisine, that it cannot be defined by one thing or one cuisine, that it celebrates all. Fusion was the impetus for bringing this to fruition.
If you wrote a book on advice for aspiring chefs, what would you choose for its title?
Shut Up and Listen, Please.