The celebrated chef of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., reflects on his experiences as a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef: Texas.
by MONICA Y. HONG
One day it just dawned on Edward Lee: He wasn’t happy. So, the literature major left his job in publishing and entered the kitchen full-time at age 23, a relatively late start in the culinary world. He started at the lowest rung of the totem pole in a New York City restaurant and now, at 39, is a celebrated chef and, you might say, also a celebrity chef. Ed, as he’s known, recently lit up the screen as a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef: Texas. Competing against 29 other chefs, he reached the final five—notably, along with fellow Korean American Beverly Kim and Asian American Paul Qui—before the judges sent him packing.
Up to that point, the good-humored chef and owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., proved himself worthy of the many accolades that have been bestowed upon him, including his fourth nomination this past February as a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast. KoreAm spoke to Ed last month and gained insight into his passion for food—which dates back to some fancy birthday meals he enjoyed as a child.
What made you want to be on Top Chef?
It was such a unique opportunity. Cooking is not a competition. Cooking is not sport. It is something you do very individually. I know many chefs around the country, but I don’t really get to cook alongside them. It’s very much a creative art so it was a unique opportunity to go onto a stage and cook head-to- head and see how you stack up against some of the other chefs in the country. I don’t know any chef that wouldn’t do it.
Did you watch the show?
Yeah, I watched the show. I wasn’t glued to it (laughs)! It was a very odd experience, obviously. I watched it with my wife. It became our Wednesday night tradition.
So how has your life changed since you were on Top Chef?
I’m getting recognized a lot more. Louisville is a small city so there’s a lot of people rooting for me. I didn’t realize how many really young people watch the show. I got a lot of letters from 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds, which is really nice, but it makes you realize that, whether you like it or not, you become a role model for some of these young kids.
What was one of your favorite dishes you cooked on the show?
I thought the tribute challenge was great when I got to make the Korean bibimbap. That was also nice because I got to talk about my family.
Did your parents watch the show, too?
Yeah, a little bit. They say they’re watching, but I have a feeling that they’re falling asleep early and catching it on a rerun. My mom called me the other day and asked me if she should vote for me for the online thing. Apparently, she just found out about it three days ago.
It was part of it. I think there’s so much tension and anxiety that sometimes you have to break that stress level with humor. We would sit around, and I’d be a goofball and make everyone laugh. I hope I helped the other chefs a little bit.
Did you think you were going to be eliminated when you were? You had a bunch of close calls at the bottom. Did you know you were going to last that long on the show?
Obviously, I was hoping to. I think you have a feeling when you’re on the bottom, but as long as someone messes up worse than you, then you’re safe.
I was convinced it was going to be chef Lindsay Autry that day.
I think on that judge’s table it was pretty fair. I made an error that was just too big to overlook.
How did you like being judged?
It’s interesting because it is this very specific kind of scrutiny that you’re up against. Let’s say, you’re a carpenter or a hat maker. How many opportunities do you get to stand before the best in your industry and have them pick apart your work? If you can get over the bumps and ego bruising that happens, it’s very valuable because the judges are not there to condescend or put you down. Some of the things that were said, I’m sure I’ll remember for a long time.
Could you give us an example?
A lot of it is “cook with your personality.” That is, anyone can come up with a good dish, let’s say steak au poivre. Anyone can make a perfect steak, but the difficult part is to be able to show your personality, your style, who you are through your food. I think that’s when you go from being just a good cook to a good chef. If you can make a dish and someone can say, “Hey, I bet you, Edward made that dish,” that’s really what they’re looking for, and I think that people who can succeed in that are the ones that go really far.
So I thought some of the Quickfire challenges were kind of nuts this season. If you had to come up with a Quickfire challenge, what would it be?
It might be cool to do a challenge where every ingredient has to start with the same letter. Randomly draw a letter from the alphabet, like the letter P, and then everything would have to be like pears and peaches and peas. It would push your brain to a different place, having to think about the names of things.
I always admired the artful presentation of your dishes on the show. Were you always artistic?
I was a literature major in college. I used to draw and paint when I was younger, so I was definitely much more attuned to that than math or numbers or stuff like that.
How did you feel about fellow chef Beverly Kim calling you her idol?
Oh, that was kind of odd (laughs). Yeah, I don’t know if I’m her idol.
She kind of stalked you at your restaurant.
I have a warrant out for her.
A little restraining order?
Yeah, a restraining order. No, she’s funny. She’s a great girl. She’s got a great career ahead of her, and I’m sure we’ll run into her again.
I definitely do think that to be on season 9 of Top Chef and for them to have two Korean chefs on the show and for both of us to go pretty far was definitely special. It felt good. Also, to have Paul [Qui] there and just in general, to have three Asian chefs go pretty far in the competition. I do think it’s pretty forward-thinking of the show because a lot of what is reflected in the show is actually what’s going on in real life across America, where Asian food and the influence that it has brought to the national culinary scene is just huge. There is no such thing as fusion food anymore. It’s just American food.
Would you do it all again if there was another Top Chef All-Stars?
Would I do this again? Yes, I would. Would I do another season? I would have to see where I am in my career. It’s definitely a great opportunity.
Since you grew up in New York, do you remember the first time you went out to a really nice fine dining restaurant?
Yeah, I remember. Since I was about 12, I used to ask my parents, “For my birthday, instead of buying me a present, I want you to take me to a fine dining restaurant.” So once a year, I’d get to choose the restaurant and I would make the reservation. Then we’d go out together as a family, which was always funny because my mom always loved it, but my sister and my dad had zero patience. They couldn’t care less. My dad would always complain that the food would take too long. There used to be a restaurant in New York called Sign of the Dove, which doesn’t exist anymore, but it used to be a really popular restaurant and that was the first real fine dining restaurant I went to.
Do you remember where else you went and what you ate?
Oh yeah, I remember all of them. Sign of the Dove was the first time I had venison. And then we went to China Grill the next year—I remember that very vividly. I didn’t think the food was actually that great, but it was the most exotic and crazy place I had ever been to. Then we went to Jean-Georges’ old restaurant, JoJo. It was the first really classically French restaurant, and that was really nice.
That’s pretty amazing that you went to all those restaurants when you were a teenager.
Yeah, so the last one, [my parents] got really mad because it was kind of expensive. (Laughs.) So once I was 16, they were like, get a job. So that ended my free meals.
Does your family go to your restaurant now?
They have. It’s nice. They obviously remember when I was a little kid. There was a period when my parents were very scared and very confused about my life choices. For them—and I think for most parents—they want to see their children happy and not struggling, so I think my parents are pretty proud.
How did you adjust when you moved from New York to Kentucky?
I’m still adjusting. I don’t think I’ll ever fully adjust.
Do you miss the sounds and the crazy claustrophobia of the city?
There are other things that I love about here as well that New York can’t offer, and I go back to New York often enough that it’s fine. There are some amazing things that you can do here. You know, we went out duck hunting the other day.
Not something you do in Brooklyn.
No, and it’s just fascinating to me.
Were you a good shot?
Uh, I’m getting better.
Do you wear the whole outfit?
Oh yeah, you have to. It’s a whole ritual. You drink bourbon, you chew tobacco, you talk sh-t, smack talk. It’s hilarious. It’s just a whole different culture.
Do you have any good cooking tips for our readers?
I would just say try and always cook out of your comfort zone. A lot of home cooks get stuck with doing the same thing because it’s comfortable. Don’t go to the supermarket always with an idea in your head of what you want to do. Try and be creative. Trying something new is the best way to learn.
So, when you left publishing at 23 to work in a kitchen, did you love it right away?
Yeah, the minute I started, I knew this was what I wanted. You try so many jobs and then it hits you and you say, “You know what? I can do this for the rest of my life and I’d be happy.” If you can find something like that, you’re fortunate. It was very difficult for me to make the choice to do that, but once I did, it was not very difficult to stay on that path.
Well, we’re so glad you did. Thank you Ed, it was such a pleasure. I do hope I get to come out to Kentucky some day and say hello.
Let me know. I’ll be here.
This article was published in the March 2012 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today!