Special Sauce: Chef Ed Lee on Cultural Appropriati…

[Photograph: Sara Babcock. Goose photograph: Vicky Wasik]

In part 2 of my conversation with the remarkable chef and writer Edward Lee, we take a deep dive into his terrific new memoir-with-recipes Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine.

Lee writes in the book, “”So much of what we think of as traditional American cuisine is being challenged. We’re witnessing a reshaping of the food landscape, and it is thrilling to some, obscene to others. And that is when it becomes interesting to me—when that tension between two vastly different cultures creates something new.”

Lee, a Korean-American, explains that one of the goals of the book was to emphasize how that collision between cultures is a good thing. Or, as he says, “I really wanted to write this book to celebrate the diversity of food that we have in America, but also to understand that’s our strength, that what we have in common is that we all love to eat these crazy combinations of food, and that’s what it means…to be American.”

This line of thinking of course leads to issues of cultural appropriation. “This entire book, the recipes are all based on experiences that I have from other cultures, and I kind of lend my own sort of twist. Having said that, I think appropriation is about stealing, and the opposite of appropriation is collaboration, which is about sharing. Hopefully, we do it from a standpoint of respect, meaningfulness, and we give credit where credit is due.”

Lee is just as insightful in his book as he is in conversation, and he is also full of surprises, like the revelation that his favorite pastrami sandwich in America is made and served in Indianapolis, Indiana. Where is it served? Well, for that delicious bit of info you’re just going to have to listen to the episode.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.

Edward Lee: All I do when I walk into someone’s kitchen is try and steal recipes. That’s my only goal when I see either a chef or a restaurant, I just go in there and I try-

EL: You lead the nation in cultural appropriation, Ed.

ELee: I am the number one cultural … This entire book, the recipes are all based on experiences that I have from other cultures, and I kind of lend my own sort of twist. Having said that, I think appropriation is about stealing, and the opposite of appropriation is collaboration, which is about sharing. Hopefully, we do it from a standpoint of respect, meaningfulness, and we give credit where credit is due.

EL: We’re back with chef, writer, and Emmy-nominated TV personality Edward Lee, the author of the terrific new book Buttermilk Graffiti. It’s not just a great chef memoir, it’s just a great book.

ELee: Thank you.

EL: I’m tackling a memoir now, and it’s a daunting task. It’s really difficult and wonderful often at the same moment. First of all I have to say it’s not just because there’s a picture of a Mustang convertible on the cover, you really like to drive.

ELee: I do.

EL: What’s up with that? You’re from Canarsie. People from Canarsie do not like to drive.

ELee: You know what, actually, no. I don’t like to drive. I find myself … I have to drive. It’s a weird thing. I actually don’t like driving.

EL: Got it.

ELee: But, there’s something about being in a car alone for long distances that gives you a lot of head space to think and ponder a lot of things.

EL: Got it. All right. Also, the thing that made me laugh was your description of your road trips when you’re eating six meals in a day, you’re buying ingredients … raw ingredients that you can’t possibly cook, and you’re ordering so much food. I used to say … My wife would say, “You know the backseat of our car looks like a styrofoam graveyard.” The backseat of your car, if there was, looked like a styrofoam graveyard.

ELee: Yes, yes. I think anyone who is truly passionate about food, not even a chef, but anyone, anyone whose truly passionate about food sympathizes with this thing.

EL: Yeah.

ELee: I can’t just order one main course. I know I’m not gonna eat it all.

EL: No.

ELee: But, I have to order three things. When is the next time I’m gonna be here?

EL: Tom Douglas … you know Tom Douglas?

ELee: Yeah, of course.

EL: Up in Seattle. The first time I ever went out to dinner with him we were at Lydia Shire’s restaurant Biba, in Boston.

ELee: Yeah.

EL: We sat down, and he says to the server, “We’d like the entire menu.” I was like, “You’re kidding, right?” He says, “No. This is R&D, dude. What are we gonna do?”

ELee: Yeah.

EL: It’s weird. Talk about the book. The title says a lot, Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine. Talk a little bit about how you conceived of the book, and why you felt the need to write it.

ELee: The actual seed of the book came when I was on book tour for my first book, Smoke and Pickles.

EL: Which is a more traditional cookbook.

ELee: More traditional and with stories. I know a lot about the world, but I hadn’t traveled. Traveling on a tour where you’re in a different city every single day, where which seems like an endless period of time, is a very different kind of travel then like going to Seattle, coming home, waiting three months, going to Texas, coming home, waiting three months.

EL: For sure.

ELee: The differences in our cultures in America are just so apparent. When you’re in Minneapolis one day and New Orleans the next. When I was on that book tour I just … for the first time in my life … I was traveling to a lot of cities I’d never been to before, first of all, but I also was like, just sat there and go, “You know, what binds us together as Americans? What makes the person from New Orleans, and from Maine, and from Michigan, and from Seattle, and Southern California, what makes us all … Is there one that that kind of binds us together and that we can say?”

It’s a question that increasingly I thought, “No, there’s not.” We eat very differently, we have very different cultures, we have different tribes, act very differently, and yet we all call ourselves Americans, right? That was my initial curiosity, and one of the answers that I came up with was our need for diversity, right? We’re on of the only countries where you can wake up and have a Jewish breakfast, and have Indian food for lunch-

EL: And a Nigerian dinner.

ELee: Yeah, and it’s not weird, that’s just how we do it. We have Italian the next day, and then we have a kielbasa … and we constantly demand diversity in our meals. I was in Italy a couple years ago at a friends wedding so we had to stay in this one town for like seven days. I forget the town, but it was where they make pesto.

For the first two days I was in heaven, because I was sitting there … It was the best pesto I’ve ever eaten. By the third day I said, “Hey, anyone know where a Chinese restaurant here in this town is? Because, I’m done with pesto.” After six meals of pesto I’m done. Everyone was like, “No,” and I ended up … I ate pesto for seven days, and I could not get out of that town fast enough.

EL: Were you outside Genoa somewhere?

ELee: Yeah, yeah. It was like a seaside … it was right on the coast.

EL: Got it.

ELee: On the western shore. Subsequently, … I go to Korea, I’m like, “I’m done with noodles. Can we get some pizza in here?” One of the things that I really wanted to write this book to celebrate the diversity of food that we have in America, but also to understand: that’s our strength, that’s what we have in common is that we all love to eat these crazy combinations of food, and that’s what it means, for me, anyway, to be American. Just from a food lens.

I also wanted to write about a lot of these immigrant cuisines that we don’t see a lot of. Some we have, like Middle Eastern food. I’ve eaten hummus my whole life, but I honestly don’t know a lot about Islam or the Muslim culture.

EL: Right.

ELee: Some foods I just wanted to delve more deeply into, and then there were others, like Nigerian food, which I know is gonna be the next big cuisine in America. It’s just sort of percolating right now, under the radar.

There’s a neighborhood in Houston, for example, it’s the largest Nigerian population in America. The restaurants there are incredible. I wanted to sort of see it firsthand, and the best thing about it is, I say I probably touch 20 or 30 different cultures in this book, you know, different food, cultures-

EL: No, it was amazing, and were not the typical cultures that people write about in road trips.

ELee: I never had to take my passport out once.

EL: Wow, that’s awesome. You actually answered maybe the question of what the book’s about. There’s a quote that I love, which is, “I cannot eat a dish without wondering who cooked it and what her story is. There is always more to the story than the ingredients on the cutting board. Much of what we think of as traditional American cuisine is being challenged. We’re witnessing a reshaping of the food landscape, and it is thrilling to some, obscene to others, but that is when it becomes interesting. When the tension between two vastly different cultures creates something new.”

You talk about Cambodian food.

ELee: Mm-hmm.

EL: Right? You talk about Middle Eastern food in Dearborn, Michigan, or in a shocker you talk about pastrami in Indianapolis as a way to talk about race relations in Indianapolis.

ELee: Yeah.

EL: I love that, I love that you’re using food as a metaphor in every chapter in the book in unusual ways, because you’re not going to the typical places.

ELee: Mm-hmm. I love that you brought up the Indianapolis chapter, because it is so true, I go there because of this Jewish deli, which, by the way, is a fantastic Jewish deli.

EL: Do they really make their own pastrami?

ELee: Yeah, they do.

EL: Very few people make their own pastrami, as you know it’s really hard.

ELee: Yes, and they do, and it’s fantastic. It’s-

EL: Shapiro’s.

ELee: Shapiro’s. It’s spectacular, but they don’t get the attention necessarily, because it’s not your typical … Indianapolis is not your typical center of Jewish culture-

EL: Right.

ELee: There’s a reason why they … So, you do, you … so I start asking, “Why is there such a Jewish, such an incredible Jewish deli in the heart of Indianapolis?” Well, you start looking at the history of it, and then you start asking more questions. There’s this incredible history of race relations in Indianapolis. Again, it starts with the food. I could’ve ended my research at the pastrami recipe and just stopped, but I asked one more question and that led me to this whole other history of Indianapolis.

EL: Then you talked about the history of African-American mechanics, and African-American racing, and it was just astonishing the way you connected pastrami to wheelies.

ELee: Yeah, yeah, but if you go there … It is a natural conclusion when you go there and you see it all happening. You know, there is this idea I guess in conventional food writing that you stick to the food, and everything else gets parsed out.

One of the things that I know for sure is that in an age of the internet, an age of … I can go on the internet and Google a pastrami recipe, or a gazpacho recipe, or a hummus recipe, and just take any food out of its context, out of its culture, and just download a recipe, and make it and eat it. There’s nothing wrong with that, I’m not judging anyone, but in an era that, that’s what we do, we are losing context at a rapid pace. We are losing origin stories, we are losing connections, we are losing human stories. To me, when I went for pastrami, but I heard about these incredible stories about race relations, I thought, “How can I not include this in the book?”

EL: Yeah.

ELee: How can I not? This is part of the story-

EL: Yes, it is. It’s a huge part of the story. You know, we have a mutual friend John T. Edge-

ELee: Yes.

EL: And, I wrote a book about New York food scene through this perspective back in 1991, and then John T. wrote his first book through this same lens, this sort of socio-cultural-political lens called Southern Belly. He even told me, “You know, Southern Belly was inspired by New York Eats,” and so I think that there are a lot of people who have now started to see that eating food or cooking food out of context, it’s not that it can’t be a satisfying experience-

ELee: No.

EL: But, it’s not as special as if you understand more about the context.

ELee: It’s a little bit hollow, and I don’t mean that as a judgment, but it’s just … it’s just eating for the food. One of the … The first chapter of the book that I wrote, it’s not the first chapter in the book, but it’s about the Cambodians in Lowell, Massachusetts. I’d heard about this for a long time, that Cambodians were taking over Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell, Massachusetts, is basically and old, dying factory town, predominantly a mill town. Now, 40% of the population is Cambodian. It used to be Irish, Polish, Italian, Lithuanian, Greek. All of that older generation of immigrants.

I go over there and I’m spending a week there, and I spend time with this … I meet this one great Cambodian chef, he goes by the name Sam. We’re cooking, and eating, and just spending a great old time together. One afternoon I’m driving and I happen upon this old boxing gym, Ramalho’s West End Gym.

I go inside … I love boxing. I go inside and I see all these pictures of Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. Well, that’s where they shot the movie The Fighter, which is about two Lowell Irish boxers. I thought, “Oh my god, of course, I love that movie.” I never made that connection because I was so deeply embedded in the Cambodian world.

The one guy said to me, “Listen, the Irish boxers aren’t here anymore. It’s mostly Latinos and African-Americans who are in the gym.” He said, “If you want some history of boxing you got to go see this guy Irish Jack Brady, he owns a bar.

I go there, and it was really funny, I go in the afternoon. I said, “He’s not here. Can I leave my phone number for him?” The bartender said, “No, he doesn’t use telephones, so you have to come back.” Which is so … I love it-

EL: I love it.

ELee: It’s so … “You have to come back at 10:00 and he may or may not be here.” I ended up coming back and he was very cordial, and sat me down, and we drank Irish whiskey together, and we sat up until 2:00 a.m. trading stories, mostly him talking, and me listening and writing.

It was at that moment that I realized that the story of the Cambodian chef isn’t complete unless I tell the story of the Irish boxer, because the two of them, to me … It’s funny, the Irish boxer won’t go to the Cambodian restaurant-

EL: Right.

ELee: The Cambodian chef is not gonna go to the Irish bar, but to me they’re linked together … forever, in the history of Lowell. To me that’s a microcosm of America, where all of us kind of live in this very complex soup where none of us kind of fully assimilate or fully integrate, but we also aren’t completely separated either. We’re like a chunky soup. Things are still kind of distinguishable, but we also meld into this other thing-

EL: Yeah.

ELee: We’re connected in that way, and there’s always one group sort of fading away, or assimilating, and another group coming in and struggling. It’s this wry, constant, endless wave of rising and falling, rising and falling-

EL: Yeah, for sure.

ELee: And how those tensions collide. Sometimes they collide harmoniously, sometimes they’re violent, sometimes they’re just … It’s all in between, and that’s the story of American food.

EL: Yeah. Let’s talk about what specifically happened in Indianapolis-

ELee: Yes.

EL: Shapiro’s is in what is now an African-American neighborhood.

ELee: Mm-hmm. Indianapolis … we’re talking the migration of African-Americans from the south moving up to the north, post-slavery. At the same time you have workers moving westward, and Indianapolis becomes this very odd, by chance, sort of neutral ground in the middle. You have this community that develops where … African-Americans who stop in Indianapolis before making the final move to Chicago, they find work there, and they end up saying, “Hey, it’s not bad here,” and they end up staying.

A lot of migrant workers from the east come over and find the same kind of work and they decide to stay, factory jobs. Then you have Jewish people who decide … At the time, too, there was way overcrowding in New York City, and so people were looking for other places to find opportunities, and there was an opportunity in Indianapolis, particularly in the scrap metal business.

You had this weird community of Italians, Jewish people, and Black people who lived in this area of Indianapolis, and it was very peaceful, it was very harmonious. Everyone got along, everyone remembers it … I ran into a number of older people who had lived there as kids, and they all said the same things, “We remembered it very fondly. We all played with each other’s kids, we all respected each other, we were all merchants. There was no upper class, we were all merchants just struggling to survive.” It became this very, almost like a utopia of race relations, which is very odd to find that in Indianapolis.

EL: Right.

ELee: Historically, Indianapolis … other parts of Indianapolis have not been the most tolerant place in the world. It was a very interesting … Also, at the very end it’s very sad is … What happens is they decide to build a highway right through the middle of that neighborhood, and it ends up … everyone just moves out of the neighborhood. Whereas, you have in other cultures where … Again, the one group assimilates, moves out, but another group comes in. No one ever came in, and because of the highway, and it just completely fractured their neighborhood. What you have now is basically a ghost town-

EL: And Shapiro’s.

ELee: And Shapiro’s right in the middle of it, and you go, and you go, “Well, this place is not gonna be busy, because there’s absolutely nothing around here,” and you walk in and it’s packed, and it’s 300 people. Shapiro’s has been there for over 100 years, there is some memory of it, and so there are Latinos, there are Black people, there are Jewish people, there are white people, there’s every creed and color of people go to Shapiro’s every single day. It’s this really wonderful place in the middle of nowhere.

EL: It’s a little bit like Katz’s in New York.

ELee: Yeah, very much so, very much so, and to hear the owner, who is now I believe fourth generation owner from the same Shapiro family talk about the food, talk about the recipes, talk about … It was something he said to me, which … Because he said, “You’re a chef, aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m a chef.” He said, “We don’t have a chef here, we’re not cooking chef recipes. We’re cooking a family heritage recipe, we’re cooking traditions.”

He said something really interesting, he said, “You know, your restaurant will only survive as long as your trend lasts, as long as your whimsy lasts. Our restaurant can go on forever, because we’re cooking traditions, and those things never die.” I sat there and said, “You’re right.”

EL: You also have really trenchant observations about assimilation. When you were writing about Dearborn you said, “Does everything have to be assimilated to be American? Can we learn to respect the distinct lines of a culture that does not want to be like us? I hope so, because as much as I love pizza and chanterelle hummus, I also want to know I can go into a restaurant in Dearborn that will serve me a boiled lamb’s head, teeth and all, as if it were the most natural thing to eat for lunch.”

ELee: What we think of as odd is not odd to them. I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want everything to be so homogenized, and so … middle-of-the-road and so safe.

EL: I love when you go to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where I have been, because whenever I would go to the Southern Foodways conference I would always stop there, you say that you went to a juke joint and there was a blues guitarist. You said, “He’s bending a sappy Sting song to say things profane,” and you said, “It reminds me of the food of Clarksdale: Italian, Lebanese, barbecue, Mexican, soul food, Chinese, some of it authentic, some not, it all bends to serve the community.”

ELee: Yeah.

EL: You’re not a snob.

ELee: No, I hope not.

EL: You’re the opposite of a snob. I did worry a little bit that the story was enough, and that the food didn’t have to be delicious. When I wrote New York Eats I was like, “A great story could get you halfway there, but the food had to be good.” You describe a lot of the food as, “Eh, wasn’t so good.”

ELee: Yeah.

EL: That was okay in the service of the story I guess you wanted to tell.

ELee: Yeah, and there was one story in particular that I tell, and I tell a lot now, is eating the pepperoni roll in Appalachia.

EL: It’s the food of West Virginia.

ELee: Yeah, yeah. Legendary tales about the pepperoni roll, and going there and going … being so damn underwhelmed by this thing, which is just a pepperoni stick and under-salted bread. I thought, “This is such a waste of time. Why did I drive all this way out here?”

ELee: Yes, you’re right, there’s nothing culinary or fabulous about that, but if … The way Ronni Lundy, a very famous Appalachian food writer …

EL: Who’s a fantastic writer.

ELee: Amazing. She said to me, and she has this power to make things crystal clear, and to make me feel stupid at the same time. She said to me, “You know, food wasn’t invented for your whimsy. This food was invented for an Italian coal miner who had to spend 12 to 18 hours in a dark cave, and who may not come home that day, and his only connection to the outside world, and to his family, and to his heritage back in Italy, was this one piece of portable meal that he could eat at room temperature.”

EL: It’s like an Italian pasti.

ELee: Yeah, so basically she said, “Screw you and your underwhelmed opinions. There is something very important up here.” I saw it really for the first time when she said that, “Yes, some of these foods are very bland, they’re very boring, if you will, but if we don’t keep that touchstone of where our foods come from then we also don’t know how to make things flavorful, and so we need to keep those things.”

It’s one of the things that I find really interesting in this age that we’re in, is that everything is packed with flavor, and there’s 14 garnishes, and everything has to have a hybrid of something and something. A lot of the foods I eat when I’m researching something very, very traditional, whether it’s a very traditional Italian dish in Italy, or a Korean food, or Japanese food, anything that was eaten by our grandparents’ generation, to my palate is very bland, it’s very bland food.

We think, “Well, this food can be improved upon,” because I’m gonna add more spice, and more Togarashi, and I’m gonna throw this on there, and furikake. They didn’t need that. It’s a function of our psyche today. I don’t know what it is, but we demand 14 layers of flavor in everything-

EL: Right.

ELee: They didn’t, so to say it’s bland is really just a reflection of our generation and what we’re demanding in our food versus it really being bland, because there was an entire of generation of people that grew up on this food and were perfectly happy with it.

EL: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting, because that brings up this notion of tradition and authority, and you wrote, “The danger with traditional is when it is given to authority when it demands authenticity. Words such as: true, genuine, and real will then quickly enter the discussion.” You regard that as problematic.

ELee: I regard them as fascism, to be very frank about it. You know, what I hate the most is, every once in a while I’ll pick up a Southern cookbook and it says, “Authentic recipes from the South.” What authenticity are you talking about? Because, if you’re talking about the 1850s, it’s mostly European food.

If you’re talking about post-slavery you start to get the African influence into Southern food. When you talk about the Paula Deen South, if you will, which is basically just a caricature of a Southern food, and everything’s fat and buttered. We’re living in sort of a post-Paula Deen era where we’re sort of reaching back.

Really … here’s the thing, Paula Deen is not irrelevant, it’s just that it was a time and a place as a post-industrial food, industrial food world that we’re coming out of, and Paula Deen just kind of took it all together and threw 10 pounds of butter in everything and made it popular.

Depending on what era or period you’re talking about, that food is just as valid as any other era, so when you say “authentic recipes from the South,” tell me what era you’re talking about and I’ll tell you if it’s authentic or not. Something from 1820 is just as valid as something from 2015, it’s just the period that we live in. To me, what we’re living in right now is the South embracing what some people are calling, “the immigrant South”, or the South embracing this diversity of culture where you see, we’re acknowledging Mexican culture in Southern food, Lebanese, the Vietnamese in Texas and Louisiana. All of these immigrant cultures all trickled all throughout the South that are having influences in the food, and we are seeing the landscape of Southern food actually change. Southern food was never a monoculture.

That’s the one big misperception that I always get, that the more I study, and the more I read up on and experience Southern food, Southern food … People always say, “Well, Southern food is this monoculture, and it’s all white people making it.” It never was, it really never was. It was always this incredible grand experiment in African ingredients and cooking techniques, mixed with European sensibilities, mixed with Native American agriculture. Then you throw the West Indies, you throw the spice trade from Asia, you have barbecue rubs coming … It’s always been this incredible-

EL: It’s all fusion with a “small f” food.

ELee: Yes, it always was. At some point we kind of painted it as this monoculture, but it never was, and so, again, those words like authentic, to me wreak of, “Well, what I’m gonna do is I’m going to just ignore all the rest of the history, just point to one era and call that authentic.”

EL: Yes, it’s weird. I wrote a whole book on pizza, and I talk about VPN, you know?

ELee: Mm-hmm.

EL: I talk about them being the chiefs of the pizza police, you know?

ELee: Mm-hmm.

EL: “There’s only one way to make … there’s only one flour to use, and there’s one oven to use, and there’s one kind of cheese to use, and one kind of tomatoes.” It’s like, who said that?

ELee: Right. I can bet you a million dollars there’s some Sicilian grandmother sticking her middle finger up at them going, “F you.”

EL: Exactly.

ELee: “I make my pizza just the way I want it, and it’s just fine.”

EL: I should say that VPN stands for Vera Pizza Napoletana. I actually met with Pepe, who started it, and I was just like, “This guy is scaring me.” Then I got a lot of shit when the book came out, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, because I said that the best pizza in the world is not in Naples.

ELee: Yeah.

EL: It was in Phoenix, it was Chris Bianco’s-

ELee: Oh, right, right, right, right.

EL: If you’ve never been you should go, it’s awesome.

ELee: Yeah.

EL: Where do you come out in this whole cultural appropriation issue when it comes to food?

ELee: We have always appropriated other cultures when it comes to food. Historically, that’s all … that is cuisine. American cuisine is an appropriation of many, many different cultures. Thai cuisine is an appropriation of many different cultures. That is historically how food transforms and changes over time. Personally, all I do when I walk into someone’s kitchen is try and steal recipes. That’s my only goal when I see either a chef or a restaurant, I just go in there-

EL: You lead the nation in cultural appropriation, Ed-

ELee: I am the number one cultural … This entire book, the recipes are all based on experiences that I have from other cultures, and I kind of … Some are traditional recipes, but some I sort of lend my own twist to.

Having said that, listen, appropriation is about stealing, and the opposite of appropriation is collaboration, which is about sharing, and so hopefully we do it from a standpoint of respect, from a standpoint of meaningfulness, and we give credit where credit is due. But, how boring would this world be if we were only allowed to cook the food of our own heritage?

EL: Oh my god. If I only got to eat the food that my mother served we’d be in trouble-

ELee: We’d all be in trouble, and it would be a very, very boring place, and so we need this, we need to … Again, I don’t use the word appropriate, but we share recipes, just like scientists do. We share things, there is a common pool of knowledge, and we all throw our hats in that pool, and we’re allowed to do whatever we want with it. That’s the ultimate.

Now, if some girl in Portland is profiting off of a Mexican tortilla recipe, well, I can’t make the world a fair place, and maybe those people should’ve been a bit more respectful in how they did it. The idea of going to Mexico, learning recipes, coming back here, and opening a restaurant, it has been done from time beginning. That is what we do. I go to countries all over the globe, and I try and absorb as much information as possible, and when it’s appropriate, yeah, I make them in my restaurant.

EL: I know, I always think it’s weird that there are all these problems on college campuses when Chinese-American students complain that the kung pao chicken is being made very badly in the dining room. It’s like, it’s college food. It’s all being made badly, regardless of its ethnic origins.

ELee: The pastrami also is awful.

EL: So is the matzo ball soup, and so is everything that they make.

ELee: Again, it goes back to this idea that we are still in 2018 fumbling around for our identities, and what we do, which I find really fascinating is that we give up some of our motherland identity to become American, and then we also try to hold onto something, as well.

EL: Yeah.

ELee: When people get offended by this, it is … What I see when they do that, it is their attempt to hold onto something so dear to them, which usually is food. My wife is German, seven or eight generations German. No one in her family speaks German, no one wears lederhosen, no one in her family, alive, has been to Germany, so they nothing about the culture. Do you know what they do every fall? They grow cabbage in their backyard and they make sauerkraut from scratch.

EL: Yes, in fact, did you bring me some sauerkraut?

ELee: No, I didn’t, sorry.

EL: Okay, come on, man.

ELee: I have to check back. You know, when we come here from wherever we came from we lose language, we lose rituals, we lose history, we usually lose religion at some point, we lose it all. The last thing we lose before we completely erase that culture is our food. We hold onto that the most, so I understand when people get offended by the kung pao chicken or the pastrami, because that is so … It may be the last thing you have that allows you to hold onto some semblance of an identity in China, and in Nigeria, and Turkey, and Greece, or wherever. It’s so precious to them, so when someone comes up and says, “Hey, I got a gyro and I’m gonna put some sriracha on it.” Of course, you get offended.

EL: Right.

ELee: It’s stomping on something that’s so precious.

EL: Yeah. I get offended because if it tastes bad.

ELee: That’s a whole other-

EL: That’s a whole … okay-

ELee: That’s a whole other discussion. I’m offended every day of my life.

EL: For you, by the way, the kimchi was the glue-

ELee: Mm-hmm .

EL: Right? All the fermented things your grandmother was putting up.

ELee: I always say, my wife is German in heritage, my daughters will speak less Korean than I do. Her daughter will speak probably no Korean, but I can god damn definitely promise you that my granddaughter will be eating kimchi.

EL: Now it’s time for the Special Sauce All You Can Answer Buffet. We don’t have a clock, we don’t have a sound. Who’s at your last supper, no family allowed, can be living or dead, just people you think would be really fun to hang out with. Could be artists, musicians, politicians.

ELee: My last supper is … living or dead … is Jim Harrison, who died somewhat recently. Two times I had the opportunity to meet him, and two times it was either canceled or schedule changed at the last minute. Actually, he was supposed to be on The Mind of a Chef series that I did, but he got very ill right before. Literally we had everything packed and we were on our way to Arizona.

EL: He would have to be there?

ELee: He would definitely have to be there, and I honestly think if he were there I would need nothing more than a bottle of wine, something to smoke, and some really fatty goose, and I’d be happy.

EL: Nobody else would have to be there? Just the two of you?

ELee: Oh, yeah. I would just want it the two of us-

EL: Wow! That’s a-

ELee: It would definitely be a serious bromance thing.

EL: Why do you like Jim so much?

ELee: Number one, he was a great writer.

EL: Yes, he is … he was.

ELee: Yeah, I never know if it’s a past or present tense.

EL: Right.

ELee: He’s a great writer, and to me it’s … Writing about food is great, but to me … his writing is so seductive, it’s so guttural, it’s so visceral, it’s so present, and he always takes me to a place of seduction. I’m always, always seduced by the language and where he takes me to. That to me primarily is beautiful.

The other thing that Jim Harrison does is, he painted a world … It was a very fancy, and he’d always name drop, and all these fancy people, but he created a world that was also very inclusive, and it was also very tender. It wasn’t just about, “I’m a glutton, and I’m this gargantuan sort of hedonism.” It was also balanced with humor, which allowed a tenderness, and it was very inclusive, and it was just about … Listen, it’s all about the food, and the culture, and the beauty of it.

ELee: It was always uplifting, it was always … even in …

EL: Even in its most …

ELee: Dismal …

EL: Debauched way. You’re just eating goose?

ELee: Yes, goose, lots of red wine, whiskey, and any other fatty thing that we can get. There’s a passage of this epic lunch that he ate with Orson Welles, and it’s like 14 courses deep and it’s just lunch.

EL: What are you guys listening to?

ELee: Oh my goodness. Neil Young.

EL: Any record in particular?

ELee: Just the whole, just front-to-back … everything.

EL: Okay.

ELee: From the very beginning to the very end.

EL: And that’s it.

ELee: And, and, and, then Neil Young comes in at the end and just serenades us.

EL: Were you practicing?

ELee: No.

EL: That’s pretty cool. Do you have guilty pleasures?

ELee: I don’t have guilty pleasures because I don’t feel guilty about eating anything.

EL: I knew you were gonna say that.

ELee: I don’t.

EL: Okay, that’s fair.

ELee: Cool Ranch Doritos is probably my low point, it’s the thing that I’m-

EL: Or your high point-

ELee: Or my high point-

EL: Depending upon where you are.

ELee: Yeah.

EL: Three books that have influenced your life?

ELee: The first serious book I ever picked up, this is kind of a longer story. Back in the old days you used to have these kind of … Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys, and there would be little coupons when you’d got to the back of the book, and you would literally fold up a dollar, you could send cash back then and send away.

ELee: I was reading some book, and it was weird, it was this book for Dante’s Inferno, and it was a poet’s journey through hell, and I thought it was a … because I was reading a … I think I was reading a comic book and I thought, “Oh my god, this is really cool,” so I sent away for it. I got Dante’s Inferno, and I opened it up and I said, “It’s a book of poetry.” It was actually the English translation and the original Italian on the other side.

EL: And you loved it.

ELee: No, I didn’t read it. I said, “This is garbage.” I was 14, “I’m not gonna read this.”

EL: Right.

ELee: I put it away and I got sick. I got hepatitis and I was sick in bed for like 12 days, and so at this point you run out of video games, you run out of things, and I picked up this book and I said, “Well, I’m gonna read this stupid book,” and it changed my life. It was what started me reading. After that I became a voracious reader, and I just read through everything.

EL: Wow, so that’s one.

ELee: That’s one. I think the other one that influenced me was, I was becoming a chef … I was reading cookbooks, right? I was reading Jacques Pepin and I was reading all these technical cookbooks. There was a woman I was dating at the time, I mentioned Clementine, and she was a really big fan of M.F.K. Fisher, and she said, “Well, you have to read, Consider the Oyster. I thought, “That’s kind of a weird name for a book. You don’t consider an oyster, you shuck them and eat them.”

ELee: It was a girly book. It was written by a woman, and it was written in this very sort of … not pompous, but a very elevated language-

EL: I would say it’s a little pompous.

ELee: Yeah, and it came from a very different place, but what it did for me was it brought me to … it brought me out of the kitchen, and it brought me to sort of this … this ether, this other world where food was not about commerce, and it was beautiful. It really just kind of opened my eyes to food writing, that you could write something so … that you could write an entire … though it’s a small book, that you can write an entire book about an oyster.

ELee: At the end of the day, was it really about the oyster?

EL: Yeah.

ELee: That just kind of coupled with … I obviously still love to read, and so with that it just opened my eyes to food in a way that I’ve always held dear, and I still read her stuff even today.

EL: That’s great. I’d love to see what the literary marriage between Dante and M.F.K. Fisher. It’s just been declared Ed Lee Day all over the world.

ELee: Oh, okay.

EL: What’s happening on that day?

ELee: Everyone takes off of work, they go to their local mom and pop bodega, or Vietnamese pho place, or Mexican taco, no chain restaurants. You get a huge order of whatever it is, you go home, you get a nice … open up a nice bottle of whiskey, and you eat, and you drink, and you read some Jim Harrison.

EL: I love it. Well, thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us, Ed Lee.

ELee: Thank you.

EL: That was awesome.

ELee: Thank you for having me, this has been fun.

EL: Check out Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine, or eat at one of Ed’s restaurants in Louisville: 610 Magnolia, Milkwood, or Whiskey Dry.

EL: So long, Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next time. Thank you. It was a pleasure, Ed.

ELee: Thank you. Thank you for having me.


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