Having chef and memoirist Edward Lee on Special Sauce was the happiest of accidents. Sitting on top of a pile of books on Special Sauce associate producer Marissa Chen's desk was Lee's evocative and moving memoir, Buttermilk Graffiti. I read a chapter, was knocked out by it, and emailed his publicist asking if Lee–chef/owner at three restaurants in Louisville, Kentucky, and culinary director at another in Washington, DC, and Maryland–was going to be in NYC any time soon. By some miracle, he was, and you can hear the results of all this serendipity on this week's episode of Special Sauce (and next's).
Growing up in the then-polyglot neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn, Lee was exposed to all kinds of food, and he and his friends ate anything and everything: "We're going to get a beef patty, and then we're going to eat some Pakistani food, and then get a slice of pizza." But, he says, the household he was raised in didn't exactly encourage his interest in cooking from a young age. "It was interesting back then, coming from a traditional, patriarchal Korean family. I was not going to be the one to cook. I had an older sister, and it's the girl that the recipes get passed down to, not the boy in the family. I'm supposed to go off and do whatever boys do. I literally had to fight my way into the kitchen. I was very persistent, even as a little kid.... I basically said, 'Listen, I'm not leaving.' [My grandmother] would let me hang out in the kitchen. She wouldn't tell me what she was doing, but she would just let me hang out in the kitchen, and she would just be like, 'Well, if you're going to be here, be here, but I'm not going to tell you anything about this.'"
When he told his parents he was going to become a chef, they were not pleased: "For my parents, they said to me, they said, 'You're being a servant. You're choosing a life of servitude.' Of course, my rebuttal was, 'Hey, you become an accountant, you're still serving someone.' They didn't want to hear that. I was kind of a smart aleck. They didn't like those answers. There were no celebrity chefs back then. There was no ownership of your destiny, ownership of your career."
Before Lee truly embarked on that career, however, he fell in love with graffiti, an outlet that, to him, represented art at its most democratic and most ephemeral. For many of the young people he grew up around, it was a "futile attempt at leaving some permanence on the world, knowing that this thing was going to get covered up in a week or two, or month. There was something both tragic and beautiful about it.... Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but I make the comparison now that food is so much the same way. Food is so much about.... It's just a moment."
Lee eventually found his way to Louisville, where he encountered his first bowl of collard greens at a local soul food restaurant and was drawn in by the multiethnic nature of Southern food culture. You'll hear more about how his exposure to Southern culture transformed his approach to food, plus the important life lessons he learned during his stint as a short-order cook in college, when you tune in.
The transcript for this episode of Special Sauce can be found over at Serious Eats.