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The Mind of a Chef’s Edward Lee Is Planning Three Major Restaurants

"New projects are always fun because they really push you to challenge yourself"

Photo: Hillary Dixler

This past weekend, the third season of The Mind of a Chef premiered, offering viewers a look into the culinary life of Louisville chef Edward Lee. The New York-raised chef has made a name for himself with his restaurants 610 Magnolia and MilkWood in Louisville, his well-received cookbook Smoke & Pickles, and also for his time on Top Chef.

Below, Lee tells Eater about his experiences filming The Mind of a Chef, and how his travels with the show have impacted his work back in Louisville. And there's plenty of work to be done. Lee says he has a whopping three restaurant concepts currently in development: a Louisville restaurant "run by the community and for the community," a "fun restaurant in Louisville probably by Summer of next year," and for 2015, his group's first restaurant outside of Louisville. "I think new projects are always fun because they really push you to challenge yourself," says Lee. "I don't care how successful you are or how much you think you know, when you open a new restaurant, you start from scratch." Here's the interview:

The Mind of a Chef is going to let viewers into your creative process. What did you learn about yourself by making the show?
I think anyone that has the good fortune to be a part of this process, I don't think you come out of this process the same person. It's actually very demanding. It's very challenging. I think chefs by nature are very instinctual and impulsive. We don't necessarily think about the reasons why we do things. We just do them. I think any show like this makes you really take a moment, pause, and dig deep. I think for me, that was really revealing about myself. I always knew it, but what really came to floor is that I'm just fascinated by the narratives of every person that I come in contact with.

I think everyone's got a story to tell and especially the people, chefs, purveyors, farmers, food producers, the people that I respect have a really incredible story to tell. A lot these guys, I've known them for years, but never actually sat down and heard their story. Once I did, it just changed my entire outlook of what they do and how they do things. To me, the first question I asked is not necessarily what's in that recipe, but how did that recipe come about? I'm really interested in the back story.

"I think personal narrative is a part of cooking that we don’t always pay attention to because we’re so enamored by gadgets and kitchen equipment."

I'm really fascinated by everyone's personal narrative. I think that's a part of cooking that we don't always pay attention to because we're so enamored by gadgets and kitchen equipment and science and all that stuff, and that's cool too, but none of that happens without the personal attachment in the story that goes beyond. It's just as important. The origins of a recipe is just as important as the steps and procedures of a recipe and the ingredients. That to me was something that really came forth in this series.

Is there anybody in particular that you met within the context of the show that really sums that up for you?
Yeah. There's a lot, but I would say... Meeting Nancy Newsom of Colonel Newsom's Ham. We had never met before. I've known her for years on the phone. When we met, it was like meeting a long-lost sister. But the way she expressed herself, the way she expressed the story, the way she had this incredible love and sensitivity and this gentleness about the way she talked about her story really made me fall in love with her in a way that is different over the phone or by e-mail.

Though I've been using that ham for 10 years, all of a sudden, that looks more important because of this personal connection now, because I always feel like a part of their family now. It's been a family business for so long and it just makes all the difference. If I can impart a little bit of that to my customers, I'm like a filter. If I can impart a little bit of that history and story and love to my customers, maybe a couple of them will actually go out and visit her. It just spreads that culture. I think that's really important.

It also ensures that maybe she'll be around for another generation making more hams. There's hundreds of country hams out there. For one reason or another, this one really struck me. That connection is not something you can explain in words. You go there and you either feel it or you don't and I did. I feel like I have a connection for life. To me, that's what cooking is all about. It's memories, experiences, it's knowing people face to face.

It's not picking up your phone and calling a purveyor and asking for food. It's creating relationships with these people. They supply my restaurant with products. Without them, I would be nothing, so they deserve a lot of the honor and spotlight. Obviously as a chef, I get a lot of spotlight because of what I do, but really they deserve a lion's share of that. My goal is to spread that out as much as I can.

What are some ways you've found to share those stories directly with your customers?
Here's the thing. Obviously television and things like that help, articles, but there's no magic wand. The best way is just like this, sitting across from a person and talking to them. It's very primitive, but it's still the best way. It's having a drink at a bar or late at night saying I don't want to talk about movies or TV shows. I want to talk about people who make country ham. It's still the the most effective way. Passion is contagious and people see that and they feel that and they're like well I got to go ... It's funny that in this day and age of technology and e-mails and all that stuff on the internet, that that's still the most effective way to get your message across. That is still the best way to be in contact with people and that gives me hope. We're not robots yet.

Lee on location in Argentina. Photo: Courtesy ZPZ

You were saying how television gives chefs a spotlight, and The Mind of a Chef is obviously not your first TV experience. Do you think that there's a pressure on chefs today to do television?
Yes. There's a lot of pressure on chefs to do television. I started cooking over 20 years ago. When I was cooking on the line 20 years ago, I never thought about a TV, I wouldn't call it career, but a TV presence. Now if you're a young chef, that's always going to be in the back of your mind. In many ways, I feel really fortunate that probably for the first seven to eight years of my career, I never even thought about anything else but cooking. I didn't think about my hair or writing a book. I just thought about cooking.

That's all you did because that's all that was available. You didn't have jobs as food writers or food stylists or blogs. There was none of that, so all you did was cook. Now the world is much more expanded. It's a great time to be in food, but it's also really confusing. As a young chef, there's so many avenues you can go down. You've got to be good at many things. You've got to wear many hats. It's exciting, but it's also really challenging.

Do you feel that there are any dangers to young chefs who have an eye towards television? Are there any down sides in participating?
There's always up sides and down sides to anything, but that's the way the world is and is going, so you can't be a dinosaur. But of course there's down sides. There's down sides to what I did, which is really limited. We never thought about a world beyond the four walls of our kitchen. Now I can't imagine a world without expanding beyond the four walls of our kitchen.

Which ties back into The Mind of a Chef...

"My kitchen is not where I come up with new ideas, it’s where I experiment."

That's the beauty of it. I was explaining to someone else, my kitchen is not where I come up with new ideas. My kitchen is where I experiment and execute and test my new ideas, but the germination of an idea doesn't happen in the kitchen for me. It happens outside. It happens on a subway, on a farm, riding a train, reading a book, going to a museum, drinking at a bar. All those things form the germ of the idea. My kitchen is where I go back to and test those things, but if you don't ever leave your kitchen, I think you live a very limited world, that you've got to absorb so many things.

I think the public asks a lot from a chef these days, a lot more than you did 20 years ago or a generation ago. Part of that is to be really familiar with your purveyors and know where the food source is coming from. Food sourcing is no longer a new fangled thing. It's expected from everyone. You have to get out there and know where your food source comes from. You have to know and you have to be a part of that process. It's no longer this day where you pick up a phone and order your stuff and it comes in a cardboard box the next day.

The idea of the part of a restaurant that starts in the kitchen in the morning no longer exists. The restaurant's menu doesn't start in the kitchen. It starts on the farm or it starts with a purveyor. It starts with a food producer. It starts with a philosopher, an author. It starts with all those things. That process is a lot more demanding when you start thinking about all that.

I think the role of a chef has become really expanded, but at the same time, I think we all do it, all great chefs know that this isn't a job, it's a lifestyle. What we do with our time after hours, everything revolves around food; vacations, morning coffee. Everything we do revolves around food, so it becomes a part of our existence. That's why when things like Mind of a Chef come around, it's not necessarily spotlighting, well it does, but it's not necessarily highlighting the kitchen. It's highlighting our life because we live in this thing 24/7 now. I think there was a generation where you could be a chef and have a life outside of it, but now it's not. Every single thing I do every day revolves around my life in food. It's interesting. I schedule things and plan things around food.

So what was it like to come back to your kitchen after filming?
It was actually really refreshing because the rhythm of a kitchen is so predictable to me and so comforting, but filming is a totally different rhythm and it's foreign to me. The day by day, it's very foreign to me. I like the chronology that happens in the kitchen. I like the progression of what we do in the kitchen.

Filming is a whole other beast and it's a whole other vocabulary. It's a whole other discipline. It's fascinating to me, but it's definitely challenging. It's different. There's something about being on the road and traveling a lot where when you come back, you miss it ... You miss being a troubadour. I would say it's really one of the professions in this world where it's like you are a road warrior, and I still do a lot of traveling, but there's something about filming, it's like the traveling troubadours of yore. We go all around the world and you peddle your wares. That's what we do now as chefs.

It's really interesting because the life of a chef used to be confined to this kitchen. I don't know which is worse, sweating behind a stove all day long or being on the road all day long, but it's a neat existence to be able to do that and obviously follow your dream. It's pretty incredible.

Speaking more to what's happening behind the stove, what's happening at your restaurants that you're really excited about? Any new projects?
Definitely, we're constantly churning out ideas. One of the things that we're planning next is a nonprofit restaurant that benefits a local community that needs it. It's in the early stages, but I'm really excited about that. It's something that I've been passionate about for a long time and it's starting to come together and really have legs. That's our next big push is to create a community restaurant, run by the community and for the community.

Really I'm just the facilitator, but part of it is using my expertise and knowing how to open restaurants, how to run restaurants, how to do that, and helping this community create its own restaurant ...

That's exciting.
There's more details to come, but we're in the early stages of it. We actually haven't even sent out a press release for it.

I purposely avoid using the word charity or charitable. This isn't a charity thing. This is something that we're doing. It's a sustainable thing for the community. It's not a brand new idea. There are examples of this around, but I think there needs to be more of it. I don't know why, but I think one of the things about being successful and about being well known and about being famous is that you really have power to do things.

All of a sudden when I say "Listen, this is a good idea, it needs to happen," people listen. That is really gratifying because I've been wanting to do this forever and years ago, no one listened to me. Now they are. That to me is a really important aspect of everything that's happened to me is that I can get projects off the ground a lot faster. People are willing to donate money and fund things like this a lot easier and it's a really important part. It's beyond the whole fame and whatever thing. The really fun part of having that power is to say listen, let's try and make something happen here.

MilkWood, Louisville, KY. Photo: Facebook

Coming home from filming with fresh eyes, what do you see happening in Louisville right now that you excited about or not excited about? What do you think is missing?
There's a lot. I think Louisville is red hot right now. It's really exciting to be a part of this. I think every city goes through a renaissance and Louisville is experiencing it right now. The bar scene, the restaurant scene, the food vendors, it's a really exciting place. Obviously bourbon is at the forefront of all this and leading the charge, but it's an exciting time to be there. With that, there's more bourbon tourism in Louisville than I have ever seen...

"We’re also planning another fun restaurant in Louisville probably by Summer of next year."

With that comes expectations. With that comes responsibility. It's all the things you want to hope for. Yeah, in addition to the vocational restaurant, we're also planning another fun restaurant in Louisville probably by Summer of next year.

Can you tell me more about it at this point?
No I can't ... I actually don't know. A lot of the process for me is to throw a ton of ideas at a wall and then just see what sticks. We're going through that. It's actually the most fun part of the process, but it's all theoretical right now. That kind of stuff for me is fascinating. Like you said, you look at what Louisville needs. These are the things I'll want to see. These are the things that Louisville needs. If there's an intersection where it works, then you go okay, that's got some legs to it...

Do you already have a space in mind?
No, no. We're always looking at something. Even if I don't have an idea, I'm always looking at spaces. I'm one of those real estate guys. I just like looking at spaces. A lot of times too, you'll look at a space and the space will dictate the idea.

When you walk into a space, what are you looking for? What makes a space speak to you?
Every space is different and you have to ignore what's there a lot of times. You look at the bones. It's like you have to undress the space with your eyes and to start to peel away the wallpaper, peel away the flooring, peel away the cheap woodworking, peel away the Formica, and just look at the structure and the bones and then just try and an re-imagine the space in your eyes. Sometimes you have to listen.

Also, it sounds romantic, but buildings have a voice and a life and they have a presence. I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe there's spirits in there and they talk to you. Some places just don't speak to me. It's about the connection that I have to a place. Some places speak to you and some places don't. It's a very fun part of the process.

Would you ever consider expanding outside of Louisville?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. Actually we are planning our first project outside of Louisville also for next year.

Which is separate from...
Separate from that, yeah.

Wow. You have a lot on your plate right now.
A little bit. A little bit, but it doesn't seem any more daunting than [when] I had a book, a show and a baby. And a new restaurant, so that's about as intense as it gets. I feel like if I can survive that, I can survive anything. It was a very intense year. I don't think I've slept right in years, but I'm loving everything about what I do right now. I can honestly say that I'm having more fun now than I ever have and it's something that I'm very blessed with that. I don't want it to end. To me, the arc of a career just about staying busy and keeping the cogs in your brain going.

"I don’t care how successful you are, when you open a new restaurant, you start from scratch."

I think new projects are always fun because they really push you to challenge yourself and say okay, we haven't ever opened a second incarnation of an idea, and I don't think I ever would. I like the challenge of opening the new space with a new identity and a new feel. That's what really gets me going. I don't want to cookie cut restaurants. I want to do things where it's like every new space has a challenge and has a new vision. I don't care how successful you are or how much you think you know, when you open a new restaurant, you start from scratch...

What city are you looking at for this next year location?
I don't know.

Do you think you'll stay close to home?
Well, no. All I can say is we're looking at the East Coast, not New York City. I'm an East Coaster at heart. I love Louisville, but I've always grown up near the water. I grew up in Brooklyn. I grew up on the East River ... there's something about being on the river, being near a body of water that's very exciting to me. Louisville does have a river, but it's not the same. When you grew up with the Hudson River as your background, it's not the same.

· All Edward Lee Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Mind of a Chef Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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