The Ulterior Epicure, the anonymous restaurant blogger known for meticulously documenting his meals at the world's great restaurants, has decided to finally reveal himself. He's Bonjwing Lee, a native of Kansas City with an Asian-American family and a University of Michigan law degree. Those geeky enough to have been tuned into such matters will know that this has been a long time coming. There have been rumors, stalkers, and even blogs dedicated to figuring out this intriguing guy, who on one day could be seen enjoying his last meal at elBulli and the next be spotted throwing down at M. Wells. Or at least it felt that way.
Over the weekend I called up the Wolfsburg hotel where he's staying while on a junket with bloggers like A Life Worth Eating and Chuck Eats. We talked anonymity, blogging, his new cookbook, and — now that he's gone public with his name and has quit his job — the future.
Where are you?
Right now I'm in Wolfsburg, Germany. A great friend of mine has a blog called High-End Food. I ate with him at elBulli earlier this year, and he organized this trip that is being put on by the German Tourism Board. I was a little hesitant to accept the invitation, because I don't generally like to take things for free, but this was a big, fantastic trip: he's organized for us to eat the food of at least three of Germany's three-star Michelin chefs.
Before this I was in Switzerland, Monte Carlo, and Italy eating with my friend and for a bit with Curtis Duffy.
How did the Ulterior Epicure blog start?
I've always loved food. It has always been an obsession of mine since I was little. I am Asian, and I think that has something to do with it. I grew up in Kansas City in an Asian-American family. My parents and grandparents always cooked very traditional Chinese food. But growing up in the midwest is pretty odd. I was basically the only Asian in my graduating high school class of 700 people. I also traveled a lot as a child, so I saw a lot of different cultural cuisines.
The blog started when I was in law school at the University of Michigan. I was bored out of my mind, so I needed an outlet. I love to write and I love to do photography — I actually was a film major with a screenwriting as an undergrad. The blog started as a journal. I didn't intend for anyone to read it, and it really was more for me to put something out there. But people did end up reading, despite my expectations.
When and how did you realize people were paying attention to it?
When it really took off, or at least got some notice, was when I was on eGullet a lot around 2004, when I was in law school. I lived in Europe for a few months and used that time to travel around and eat everywhere. Literally everywhere. Spain, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland. I visited a lot of high-end restaurants, places that a lot of people don't necessarily know about, and that if they do, they don't have access to them on a regular basis. I took photographs, and people love seeing what chefs are doing around the world.
What are you doing now? Still working in law?
In January I quit my job as an attorney. I'm basically a free agent now. The Ulterior Epicure has always been sort of a hobby — maybe an obsession, considering the level I do it at — and it's my devotion now. But I'm trying to spend more time doing photography and possibly writing. I just finished a cookbook that will be coming out in November.
Tell us about that.
It's with chef Colby Garrelts of Blue Stem in Kansas City, and his wife Megan, who is the pastry chef there. We're really excited about that. It's a project I've been working on for the last year and a half with them. I've always wanted to do something like that, and it sort of just fell on my lap. I wrote it and photographed it.
How did that project come up?
Colby and I got to know each other through my blog. I was in law school, and Colby got named one of Food and Wine's best new chefs. So when I came home I was curious. My first couple of experiences there were not that great. I wrote about it, and Colby and I had quite a heated email exchange — he was a little more upset than I was. As time went on, we realized that we had the same goal in mind, which is that we really want to see Kansas City become a better eating town.
We had a little laugh over it, and he said that I should let him know when I'd be coming in again so that they could take care of me. I don't usually like special treatment, but he seemed like a nice guy. I came back in, and we started to become friends, since I'd eat there often. I ended up telling him that he should write a cookbook, because no other Kansas City chef has ever really written a cookbook; his cooking was interesting and good enough that he should, so I nagged him about it for three years. He never did anything about it, so I just let it go. But then, six months later, he called me up after the publisher Andrews McMeel had approached him.
In a nutshell: what does the book consist of?
The book is broken up into four sections. It's all done seasonally, but the difficult thing is that our seasons are rather harsh and extreme in the midwest. We have an abundance of things in the summer, but the winters are kind of difficult. Colby isn't a strict locavore, since he'll get scallops and seafood and things from abroad, but his cooking is all about taking those ingredients preparing them in ways that express the midwest.
Are you writing it as the Ulterior Epicure?
The book is published under my name, Bonjwing Lee, and there will be no mention of the Ulterior Epicure. So I guess people will know who I am now. At this point, the anonymity thing has gotten so silly.
Why did you decide to try to be anonymous originally?
Originally I was in law school and hadn't gotten a job yet. I don't know if I should go on record saying this, but law firms want people that don't have things going on outside. They want people that are dedicated to the job. There's nothing wrong with that, but I think there's less leeway for other interests for beginning lawyers who are expected to basically be worker bees. I didn't want potential employers Googling me and finding this blog.
It was mostly for that reason. But also because I enjoy my privacy and because the Internet can sometimes be a scary place. I never expected that by being anonymous I invited more troubles than not. You wouldn't believe the extent to which people have tried to figure me out. I've gotten multiple death threats, I've gotten proposals for marriage, I've gotten proposals to have people's children. I have one guy who emails me every single day and makes up menus that he wants to cook for me in his house. He's invited me to his house many times, even though we don't live in the same city. The attention is flattering and unbelievable at times, since I really am a nobody. At this point the veil has gotten so thin — people are figuring me out, chefs know who I am — that it's a little silly to carry on this charade.
One could say that you're part of a group which includes folks like Food Snob, Chuck Eats, and Life Worth Eating — people that go to the world's great restaurants, photograph everything, and write personal posts about the meals. Do you consider what you do blogging, restaurant criticism, or something else?
I don't consider myself a restaurant critic on the blog. A lot of times, we're just doing one-offs. In order to really do restaurant criticism, you need to have a fuller picture. I really don't like the word "blogger," because it's become a dirty word for maybe obvious reasons I won't go into. Chefs and restaurateurs — I don't blame them — are probably very annoyed by bloggers as a whole. And I don't think that people like Food Snob or Life Worth Eating or Chuck Eats are exceptions to that. We are all bloggers.
I personally can't speak for them, but I consider myself just one person writing about the meals that I have. It's all about loving food so much that I have to share it with other people. I don't want to be famous. If that was my goal, I'd have published my name a long time ago. My focus is on the food and on the restaurants. I enjoy this like some people enjoy a rock concert or a sports event.
The bottom line: I don't consider myself an authority on anything or subject outside of my own opinion. I think that, in this time of blog boomers, tension between bloggers and their audience arises when either or both sides takes themselves, or the other, too seriously.
What would you say is your focus?
Most people see me as someone who only goes to high-end restaurants, which isn't really the case. I really love high-end restaurants, because there's a lot of artistry and a lot of creativity in it. And I love the thrill of discovering what can be the next development in food. That being said, I don't care for progressive or molecular cuisine as much as others.
When I go somewhere, I'm always torn between going to the new, hot place or to the place that has been around for a while that everyone considers the old standard and will give you a grounded experience of what is typical. For example, if you were to go to the Costa Brava, do you go to a place like Can Fabes or Rafa's or do you go to the new places that have just opened up? I personally like to do the standards first. The first time I was in New York, I did Jean-Georges and Le Bernardin and those kinds of restaurants. Now I feel more comfortable going out of that and mixing new and old. But many people like doing the new.
Something I find interesting — and particularly useful — about blogs like yours is how they often focus on high-end, remarkable restaurants that don't get much press.
I was actually talking about this last night at dinner. I'll give you an example: L'Arnsbourg, in France, which has three stars. The first time I went I had to bike up a mountain in the snow to get there. It was just so great, and it's a shame to see that not too many people write about the many hidden places. When most people think three-star Michelin, it's L'Arpège, Michel Bras, Louis XV, but there are so many far-flung, magical ones. I actually went to a place called Il Canto in Siena yesterday — it's in a 15th century monastery — and that could be considered one of those surprising sleepers. It had a Michelin star. It's lost it, but I think that the chef is thinking outside of the box in a compelling way. It's quite special to walk out of a place completely surprised and satisfied after going in not knowing what to expect.
What's next for you?
I'll keep the blog. I love to write and share my love of food, and that doesn't end with quitting my job and telling you who I am. I still want to share. I'm constantly amazed at the number of people — especially chefs — who email me and say, "Thank you for what you do. We're stuck in our kitchens and we never get to get out. So it's great to have someone go to these restaurants, photograph the food, and tell us what they think." Those kinds of things really make me happy. It's nice to know that people actually care about what I write — it's almost scary sometimes how much they care. But it's really rewarding.
Right now I'm a free agent, like I said. I don't know what's coming, but I'm excited to find out.