When I arrive at the Frazier History Museum in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, a voice calls to Edward Lee from across the lobby: “Hey, bourbon’s here.”
Lee—the mastermind behind the Louisville-based 610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry, and Succotash in Washington, DC—is in the midst of setting up his first fundraising event for the LEE Initiative, the chef’s namesake foundation that trains and empowers young female chefs.
The menu is a replica of the what the five LEE Initiative mentee-chefs cooked at the James Beard House in September, and in many ways it mimics Lee’s own style of cooking:Southern, but with a story (and a fully stocked global pantry). Dishes include pork rind crisps with beer-cheese espuma; levain with Benedictine spread and pickled Fresno chiles; and a pan-seared carp with burdock purée, shucky beans, black vinegar, and pawpaw emulsion.
Lee’s menus and restaurant concepts, much like his career, continue to evolve. He earned an Emmy nomination for his time on Mind of a Chef, has been named a finalist or semifinalist for a James Beard title every year since 2008, and now has two books under his belt.
I sat down with Lee to hear his thoughts on cooking with beer, what sommeliers get wrong when it comes to pairing alcohol with Asian food, his (potential) future as a fiction writer, and beer’s place on a fine dining menu.
Last time I was in DC, I went to Succotash. The beer list has some really interesting selections, ranging from standard stuff like Miller Lite to more regional options. Can you talk to me some about what putting together a beer list is like?
I think a beer list now is kind of like a wine list, right? In the past, I always just picked my favorite beers to put on a list, but now we have everything from IPAs to pale ale to heavier, high-gravity beers, all your classic beers; then you have to have a collection of your locals.
We look at regionality, different styles—and then you gotta have your Miller High Life.
Right. Tell me about your Succotash Rye beer.
That’s more the bev manager’s thing, but obviously we knew we wanted something representative of us. One of the things we do for beer because we are so bourbon-heavy—it’s nice to “chase” a bourbon with a beer. We really kind of look at beer based on what on goes well with both the food and the bourbon, because a lot of people will drink bourbon and finish with a beer, almost like a palate-cleanser.
The Succotash Rye goes well with bourbon; it’s got enough heft. Everyone has their different philosophies of beer, but I think if it’s too light, after bourbon, it literally ends up tasting like water. If it’s too heavy, it competes.
You’re splitting time between Louisville and DC now, right? What’s that like?
Well, the process sucks because I’m on a plane all the time. I’m literally back and forth every eight to ten days. I don’t have a set schedule, but I’m obviously here today because of our big gala dinner. I’ve got an event in DC on Friday, so I’m here two days. Then I’ll be back here in like two weeks for another event.
I think the restaurants themselves function on a day-to-day basis, but I come back to check on things; I get busier when we do seasonal changes. We’re basically doing new menus for five different restaurants and there’s not much overlap.
Go to Asia and eat at the night markets and all the fucking Asian restaurants all across the entire continent. There aren’t four million people drinking Riesling. They are drinking beer.”
So, how is the restaurant scene different in the two places?
I think what’s happening with food now is you’re seeing a sort of democratization of food. There’s not much difference between cities now, which is good and bad. I think you’re seeing food become a lot more relatable across the board. And at the same time that we see a focus on regionality, we also see a lot of similar kinds of things because of Instagram and the internet—things are becoming a lot more similar at the same time. They are becoming distinct and similar at the same time.
You touched on this earlier, but we’re seeing more and more fine dining restaurants incorporate beer into their services. How do you feel about that trend?
It’s been happening; I mean, it’s not new. It’s only new because beer makers have upped the game and we’re seeing, you know, beers that now have nuances. The difference between fine dining and anything else is just nuance. There are more layers, more elegance, more care taken, more subtlety. You can taste twelve different notes instead of just pastrami and mustard. I think when you have that you have to pair it with something equally nuanced. Beer traditionally hasn’t been that.
Now you’re seeing that, though—someone like Roy Milner from Blackberry Farm, he is making some of the most complex beers in America right now. Those beers are, to me, a different flavor palate, but just as complex as any wine.
It’s not a stretch to put it on the menu, or to do a beer pairing. At 610 we used to do a six-course tasting menu with wine pairings, but now we call it a beverage pairing—now it’s never six courses of wine. There’s wine, always a beer, sometimes we rotate in a cider or a spirit cocktail.
The whole world of beverage pairings with food, it’s opened up.
And I guess it has to change as food has changed.
Right. Most fine dining in America back a generation ago was an imitation or some kind of inspired-by French food, or European food in general. And that’s always going to be more wine-friendly. Obviously there’s a reason the two came up together.
But as you are seeing chefs in America embrace Asian food, embrace Southern food—I mean smoking, spices, fermenting. As the world becomes more global in its flavors, you can have a restaurant rooted in French technique, but still using Mexican spice or Japanese spice or Thai spices. Once you do that—Sichuan peppercorn or chipotle—wine starts to have its limitations. That’s when you go, “OK, we’re using achiote and some other spice to fortify this fine dining dish no one is going to do.”
That’s interesting—more of a move toward “What beverage fits this best?” rather than a prescriptive wine list.
Yeah, and in American restaurant history—and I’ve said this before and every sommelier gets pissed at me—but every single time there was an “Asian course” on the menu, people are like, “Here’s a Riesling.” And it completely doesn’t go. Riesling and Asian food is probably the biggest misnomer in the world, and it’s actually pretty racist if you ask me.
They do it every time. It’s like, because they don’t understand the food, they don’t know what to pair with it, they just reach for a sweet wine. We’ve been misled to believe Rieslings and Asian food go together, when in fact you should be pairing with beer.
Go to Asia and eat at the night markets and all the fucking Asian restaurants all across the entire continent. There aren’t four million people drinking Riesling. They are drinking beer.
I’ve never made, like, a 'beer-flavored something,' because there is no beer flavor. Once you reduce it down, it’s just bitterness.”
Do you have a favorite at-home beer right now?
I’m embarrassed to say, but summertime all I do is drink that grapefruit beer—Stiegl Radler. I know it’s like a cheesy thing. When I started drinking it, it was cool. Now it’s like a housewife-y thing, but I still love it. It’s low in alcohol and I can drink it left and right.
But I stick pretty much to lagers. I don’t do sours or IPAs, unless I’m pairing it with food.
Do you cook with beer much?
Yeah, yeah, I do. Beer is very bitter, more so than most things.
I was going to ask if you have any tricks for it.
I mean, you just can’t use that much. It has to be very subtle. I’ve had some really bad—I don’t want to say whose—but I had a beer ice cream that was disgusting, It was just too much. To get the flavor of the beer into the ice cream, you had to reduce it down a ton, and it was just bitter, bitter, tannic.
Now that we are heading into fall, dark beer is a great addition to stews, braises. It adds depth of flavor, you don’t taste it. When I use beer to cook with, I’m using it for the tannins and the deep, earthy, and malty note; I’m not doing it so you taste the beer. I’ve never made, like, a “beer-flavored something,” because there is no beer flavor. Once you reduce it down, it’s just bitterness.
You released your latest book, Buttermilk Graffiti, over the summer. Do you see yourself wanting to write another book?
Yeah, I do. It took a lot out of me, so…
Are you recovering right now?
I really am. It takes a lot of energy to put out a book like that.
Right, because it was deeply personal—part memoir, part recipe book.
And it was my first foray into writing other than, like, journalistic—and to me it’s not journalistic. So I’m trying to see what I want to do next. I don’t want to do the same book again.
That’s what I was going to ask, because you’ve done Buttermilk Graffiti, and then you’ve got Smoke and Pickles, which is a more traditional cookbook.
I think I’m trying to see what I’m most curious about. I really only want to put out a book if I truly believe in it and actually want to do it. I’m not the kind of person to put out a book every year. I don’t have it in me. The interesting thing is the idea of doing something more fictionalized has been very enticing. We’ll see.
Tell me about the LEE Initiative. What is it and where did the idea come from?
There’s a lot to say about it. My director, Lindsey Ofcacek, she really is running the whole thing. I am sort of the name and the funding behind it. But it really is an initiative to empower young women in the restaurant business. You know, we are now at the one-year mark of #MeToo, and what’s interesting is that you think about the movement and you think about the impact it’s had, it doesn’t seem like it’s only been a year.
What I worry about is sort of burn out. We live in an age where everything is top of mind, then goes away tomorrow. When we did the LEE Initiative, it wasn’t about headlines or whatever, but we wanted to do something small and impactful for women, but would last a long time.
The five young chefs who have now completed the program—tonight is the culmination, their final dinner—I have seen them grow from line cooks who were inexperienced and scared into very confident chefs. They have been to Portland, Chicago, cooked in New York, seminars with Maker’s Mark. They have done more in a year than most chefs do in ten.
They have become fine, excellent stewards of the profession, and to me it proves the theory we have: There is no gender in cooking. You give someone a step up and they excel.