Addressing inequality in restaurants was at the top of Edward Lee’s agenda long before the pandemic complicated the industry at every level. As a chef, Lee made his name putting a modern spin on Southern cuisine at Louisville’s 610 Magnolia before gaining national recognition on a certain competition show.
Through his rise to celebrity chef status, Lee has dedicated his career to clearing a pathway to leadership for women and minorities. Early this year, when COVID-19 immobilized hospitality operations, he started relief kitchens in his restaurants and promptly coordinated with his network of chefs across the country to do the same. In 2014, while based in Louisville, Lee worked with local organizations to start a culinary apprentice program for residents of the Smoketown neighborhood before ultimately founding The LEE Initiative, a nonprofit that addresses issues of diversity and equality in restaurants.
This year the mission has taken on a new role in the wake of the pandemic. “Everything shut down, and we just had to figure out what to do, and we knew that feeding people and hunger was going to be a need,” Lee says. His organization now has incorporated a roster of COVID-19 response programs, ranging from community kitchens to fundraising projects. Maker’s Mark was already partnered with The LEE Initiative for the Women Chef’s Program, and Lee says: “They stepped up and saw what we were doing on day one.”
A History of Quick Pivots, and Helping His Community
The organization came into being almost by accident, in an attempt to keep Lee’s then-manager Lindsey Ofcacek on his team. “She came up to me one day and she said, ‘I have to quit,’” Lee recalls, “and I said, ‘Why? You’re a great manager.’ She said, ‘I have two young kids — I can’t do this anymore. I need evenings off.’” None of the restaurants had lunch shifts for him to switch her to, so he asked what else she could do for his restaurant group. They soon merged Ofcacek’s background in philanthropy and Lee’s ideas for a nonprofit, and The LEE Initiative was born.
Initially, The LEE Initiative addressed gender inequality, starting with a leadership program for female chefs in Kentucky, in response to the Me Too Movement, that has already proven successful. “We’re proud to say that of the 15 people that have graduated,” Lee says of the three-year-old program, “three are already head chefs, and one’s created a culinary program at a local public high school here. Everyone’s doing remarkably well.”
Lee himself isn’t immune to the chaos of an uncertain industry, though. Just before the pandemic, he ran five restaurants across Kentucky, Maryland, and D.C., and he admits: “We’ll see how many are left after this winter.” But he continues to advocate for the industry as a whole, chalking up his resilience to the nature of the industry itself. “We all have dealt in minor catastrophes: the plumbing goes out, the electricity goes out, the oven blows out, your dishwasher doesn’t show up, we’ve all dealt with this in our careers,” he says. “And so we know how to just deal with obstacles.”
Four years ago, Lee took an opportunity to direct the menu at Succotash, a Southern restaurant by the bustling National Harbor in Maryland. After more than a decade of being a star restaurateur in Kentucky, he was ready for something different, noting: “I’ve always wanted to venture outside of Louisville, but as a New Yorker, in my heart, I knew I wasn’t ready to go back to New York.” His reasoning: high rents, tight regulations, and fierce competition.
Succotash’s Harbor location was followed by Succotash Penn Square in D.C., and Lee relocated his family to the area, too. Both locations specialize in comforting standbys like fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese spread, and shrimp and grits, but a smattering of Korean ingredients like gochujang, seaweed, and kimchi let you know this isn’t your typical Southern kitchen.
Typically, restaurants in D.C. and Baltimore are better known for their global range than Southern affiliations. “D.C. is one of the most international cities in terms of its cuisine,” Lee says. “What’s different is that you have very sophisticated representations of the ethnic food as well. It’s not just mom and pop hole-in-the-wall-style places. I think D.C., more than any other city in the world maybe, does that really well.”
Tapping Social Media to Reach Communities at Scale
“It’s not enough just to have more women in the restaurant business, we need to have more women in positions of power,” Lee said of his original intention in starting The LEE Initiative’s eight-month mentorship program for women chefs from Kentucky, Southern Indiana, and Cincinnati. He noticed, even in his own restaurants that, “as you move up the chain, you know, assistant managers, general managers, head chefs, owners, it becomes much more male and less female,” and wanted to create the opportunities that would change the statistics over time.
But Lee understands his influence as well, and is concerned about the industry at large. Throughout the pandemic, The LEE Initiative has been able to provide a model for restaurants all over the country to follow, using Instagram to start a movement of chefs converting their restaurants to community kitchens, in addition to fundraising and letting people know where to find healthy meals.
“As the pandemic hit, I knew that we could do these things as long as my staff was into it, and they bought into it and we were all a team,” Lee says. “We could do it because that’s what restaurant people do.” Thanks to their swift response and Lee’s network connection, chefs like Seattle’s Edouardo Jordan were able to start successful community kitchens in their own restaurants, based on Lee’s blueprint. “I’ll give you the money,” says Lee, “You get to hire back your staff. You get to feed your community. Just put the word out there, and fundraise.”
Although the future of his restaurants — and the restaurant industry at large — remains uncertain, Lee seems undeterred, demonstrating a continued dedication to his employees. “I’ve seen the best in humanity come out in the last four months,” he says. “It’s been an incredible gift to be able to do that, amidst all this other horrible stuff that’s going on in my little world. We’ve tried to stay positive and bring nothing but good to the community. And in return, we’ve seen so much come back to us from the community, and I truly believe that’s how you change the world.”
To find ways to support chef Edward Lee’s restaurants and other restaurants you care about, visit fb.com/SupportSmallBusiness. Keep up with The LEE Initiative by following along on Facebook and Instagram, and in the meantime, you can make one of Lee’s favorite dishes following the recipe below.
Spicy Pork Lettuce Wraps
Serves 4, as an appetizer
Spicy Pork and Marinade
1 pound pork belly, raw, sliced into thin strips
½ cup gochujang paste
¼ cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
3 cloves minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced ginger
½ cup pureed pineapple chunks
½ cup finely diced onion
1⁄3 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Corn oil (for grilling)
1 pear, cut into matchsticks (about 1 cup)
1 cup chopped cabbage
1 cup roughly chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
½ teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Pinch of salt and pepper
Garnishes for lettuce wrap plate
Spears of gem lettuce
- Combine all the marinade ingredients, except for the pork belly and corn oil, into a bowl. Whisk until well combined. Add the pork, and rub the marinade all over. Marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, make the slaw by combining all the ingredients together in a bowl. Chill for 20 minutes.
- Turn on a grill to high heat, or use a grill pan over high heat, and coat the grill with a little corn oil.
- Add the marinated pork belly. Grill on high for 1 to 2 minutes on both sides until charred but not burnt.
- Transfer to a plate with all the garnishes, and build each lettuce wrap. Guests can build their own, if they like.
- Serve right away.