4/19/2013 12:33:00 PM

Edward Lee on His New Cookbook and the Impact of Top Chef

Brooklyn-bred Louisville toque and Top Chef alum Ed Lee just finished penning his first cookbook, Smoke & Pickles, which hits bookshelves May 1. In addition to helming his eatery 610 Magnolia, Ed also recently opened a new restaurant inside the Louisville Actor's Theater building called Milkwood. We caught up with Lee to talk about the cookbook writing process, his evolution as a cook, how Top Chef impacted his career and more. Check out our chat with him below.

Zagat: Congrats on Smoke & Pickles. How involved were you in the writing process?
EL: It was my first cookbook and I thought I had a pretty good story to tell. So right from the get-go obviously we talked about ghostwriters and I talked to my publisher and I showed them a couple chapters that I had written and I said, "can I write this myself?" I think they were a bit nervous because in addition to the writing, the recipe testing was done by hand. There were really two components to it. For me it was very important to get both of them right. You know what the recipes are, you’re just testing them, it’s very scientific and rote and once you come up with the concepts for the recipes, the rest of it is not very creative at all, it’s very exacting. Very left and right part of the brain in terms of the writing and testing.

We tested the recipes first - that was probably a good six months - and along the way I thought, "oh this would be a cool story to go with it." I would just jot down notes and ideas so by the end of testing all the lamb recipes for example I had a very vague outline of a story I wanted to tell for that. When that was over I just sat down and did the writing part. And of course at the same time I was trying to run a restaurant. A lot of this was done late at night in my attic.

Zagat: How’s it going at Milkwood? What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
EL: It’s going great. We’re just over two months old. The biggest thing for us for a number of reasons because we work in conjunction with Actors Theater, we’ve been very busy from day one and most people think that’s a great thing and it is, I’m not complaining by any means. I always think that restaurants, no matter how skilled you are, a year after a restaurant opens, it always takes a slightly different turn than what the owner/chef started out with. I still believe that a restaurant is an organic thing. You could be Danny Meyer, and I’m sure he’ll be the first to tell you that you have an intention for this restaurant, this mission statement, but it may not go there. It has nothing to do with experience, or money or anything, and that’s the beauty of restaurants, a lot of it depends on once that room is filled with people, they really will determine a lot of what happens in the coming months and years.

The difficult thing is we’re busy and I try to listen to the feedback and all that stuff. We’re very lucky to be busy and during the summer the theater season is dark so we look forward a little bit of a respite, so we can take a step back and see where things are going. You think you know what you’re doing but I guess it’s like having a kid, you may have all these hopes and dreams for it, but it may go in a different direction than what you had planned for. We look forward to a slightly slower summer so we can take a breath and evaluate where we’re going. 

Zagat: Similarly, has your mission as a chef changed/evolved over your career from when you first started?
EL: The most immediate thing is that I spend less time in the kitchen. You spend less time in the kitchen whether it’s TV or writing, but you actually reach more people. There’s a very weird kind of push and pull that’s involved in the trajectory of any chef. We serve as many people as we can in both our restaurants, but it's limited by time and space. I am open six hours a night on the weekends and we have 60 covers in one restaurant and 120 in another. And that’s what makes it really special is that there’s a limitation to that.

The ambition and trajectory to any chef is you want to get your message across. I end up cooking less, for me when I am in the kitchen, there’s not much thought involved. It’s very instinctual. You see a bulb of fennel and you think, "oh that’d be nice to combine with this." It's very much based on touch and smell and serendipity. You travel more, and you end up becoming a lot more cerebral, you end up focusing on the who's and the why's. I hate to wax philosophical but you think a lot more about: "why am I doing this?" It’s a very direct kind of satisfaction when you’re just in the kitchen and you taste something and you think, "that tastes great." It ends up becoming a very thoughtful process. Part of it that I really enjoy and part of it is frustrating because sometimes I just want to throw some food together.

Zagat: How did Top Chef change your career if at all and how would it have been different had you not done it? 
EL: The exposure of Top Chef is undeniable - being in millions of homes every Wednesday night for three months is ridiculous exposure. Along with that comes everything. I’m sure that I had endorsements this year that I would not have had. On the food side, not to take anything away from Top Chef, it’s a highly entertaining show, and with it comes a lot of attention from people who are not at all foodies, people who are watching it for entertainment value, which is a great audience. Top Chef gives you exposure it doesn’t necessarily give you credibility. The praise by your peers and your customers you still have to earn.

So my life has definitely changed for the better because of Top Chef. In some ways I’m very much more anxious. It’s very important for me to prove that there is a distinction between myself and perhaps other chefs on the show, not to take away from them. There are some people that come into my restaurant and say, “he’s a Top Chef guy, let’s see what he can do.” And it makes me much more nervous and anxious and it really does push you because you don't want anyone to say, “oh well, it really wasn’t that good.” With TV you expose yourself to a lot of easy criticism. When I finished the show, I had a meeting with all my staff, and I said, "we’re going to ramp up this restaurant to a point where we have never gone before." It really does put a fire in your belly.

Zagat: Would you ever want your own food TV show?
EL: I think any chef in the world would be lying if they said that they didn’t want their own show. Having said that, I have in the past year or so been asked to do things where I have turned them down. There are some shows there’s no reason to do.

Zagat: You mentioned in the book that you dislike the term "fusion." How do you feel about the term "New American?"
EL: It is as benign as it is vague. I think that’s playing it very safe and I'm positive that I’m guilty of using that term in describing my food at some point in my life. I feel like as chefs and it’s basically the media’s fault, we’re always asked to create soundbites. It’s a very difficult thing because I understand the need for them. I don’t think New American is any worse than Tex-Mex. What I’m most excited about are cuisines that are indescribable. And I really think that there is kind of a trend and a wave going toward that. You go to Mission Chinese, and I don’t know what you call that food. It’s indescribable, and that’s what so good about it. I can’t pigeon-hole it, it’s too out there. There will always be catch phrases. Danny Bowien's only cooking Danny’s food. Sean Brock only cooks Sean Brock’s food. You get to a level and your food is simply an expression of who you are. 

To me the most annoying restaurants are the ones that say “we only cook authentic Sicilian food the way my grandmother did two generations ago.” To me that’s incredibly regional and limited. It was a trend and a wave probably a decade ago. A lot of what we’re seeing now is a backlash to that of faux authenticity. "I only cook this kind of food." I love seeing chefs like Andy Ricker saying, "I cook Thai food and I’m white. I don’t care and I cook better Thai food than most people out there." No this isn’t "authentic" but it’s my food and it’s great and you can’t touch it. I cooked during a time in New York, where if you were Japanese, you had to be a sushi chef. If you’re Italian, you'd go open an Italian restaurant, and now people cook whatever they want. 


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