Interview: Chef Edward Lee

Top Chef season 16 came to a close last week with the crowning of the new winner of the coveted title as Kelsey Bernard Clark who took the win after an almost too close to call finale battle with her longtime friend and Kentucky native Sara Bradley.

The Travel Addict was able to catch up with James Beard award-winning chef and Top Chef’s Kentucky native Edward Lee at this year’s music, drink and food event Bourbon & Beyond in Louisville Kentucky.

Bourbon and Beyond just announced the 2019 dates and lineup taking place September 20-22 taking place at the newly created Highland Festival Grounds at KY Expo Center. Ed Lee will be one of the participating chefs again this year on the culinary stage at the festival headlined by Foo Fighters, Robert Plant and the Zac Brown Band.

Lee talked to us about his adoration for Kentucky, some famous musicians he would like to cook with and vital mission to mentor and empower young female chefs. Check out the Travel Addict’s interview with chef Edward Lee below:

What are you looking forward to most about the Bourbon & Beyond Festival?

The music, it is a great lineup. Louisville typically is not the kind of place you get this first-class stellar lineup. We are looking forward to that. The way it is set up, outdoors, it is crazy. I think, a second year, we have a great variety of musicians, not just the top billing, the second and third billing people are great.

You had a whole episode on Mind of a Chef dedicated to Kentucky and bourbon. Bourbon is a big part of this festival. What is your favorite bourbon? What can people look forward to with the chef experience at the festival?

I don’t have a favorite bourbon. Being from Kentucky, that is like asking someone to pick their favorite child. They are all great. My thing is about age expressions, to me, good bourbon is about ten years old. That is what I look for when I am drinking bourbon. “Any bourbon that is about ten years old is going to be fantastic,” is what I tell people. Wheated bourbons are nice.

One of the things that is so unique about this [festival] is, you don’t usually have a music festival of this size with this kind of talent in addition to this kind of chef talent. The level of food we bring to this festival is unlike anything you will see at any other festival. It is seriously curated food.

You will see burgers, but it is not just a burger. Everything is done by chefs. You have that really specific care chefs bring to food that they will bring to this festival. The experience of really nice bourbon, really chef-ism food, and this music, that triangle of curation is amazing.

I know you love Kentucky, you moved there years ago. Some people are coming for the first time, what would you recommend for visitors?

So many things, go and see a distillery. Check out a museum, we have great art museums. Check out the waterfront, there are really cool things to do out there. Eat at the restaurants we have, they are fantastic.

We are getting so much press nationally and internationally for our restaurants, it’s insane. Go explore the city, we have great parks. There are great places to drink bourbon, there are great places to shop for bourbon. They call it the Bluegrass State for a reason, there is a lot of outdoor space. There are a lot of parks, it is great to explore and go hiking or wander through some parks. Louisville is a really wonderful city.

What would you define as a perfect trip? Do you have any travel coming up, what would you say is your ideal vacation?

To me, there is no such thing as a perfect vacation because a lot of times vacations are about those unpredictable things that happen that are so amazing. To me, it is about food, I vacation for the sole purpose of eating.

The way the cool memories of that vacation are the people you accidentally run into, whether it is locals or other travelers. One of the great things about Louisville is that people that live here are so proud of Louisville and they are so kind that they always go out of their way to make travelers feel welcome or at home.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people from Louisville are so nice, and it is not just a gimmick. They are truly proud of their place.

When I go on vacation, I try to immerse myself in the local culture and try to meet as many locals as possible.

Do you have a top food city outside of Louisville that is your favorite place to get meals?

There are so many. You know New Orleans is one of my favorite cities to eat in and continues to have amazing restaurants. Seoul, Korea, I travel there once every three or four years. The food is insane there, it is so good. I love Toronto too, it is so international, it has so much variety of stuff.

What dish would you consider your guilty pleasure?

To me, it is cold fried chicken. I get a bucket of fried chicken and eat the leftovers for breakfast the next morning. Eating cold fried chicken is the best.

Is there an item in your house that you always have in your refrigerator?

I am obsessed with pickles, so there is always a huge variety of pickles in my fridge at any given time.

You have so many successful restaurants in Louisville, with 610 Magnolia being one. What is the most popular dish on the menu there?

So we change the menu all the time so it is hard to say. We literally change the menu every few weeks. We never let a dish stay on there more than a few weeks.

We go against the philosophy of having favorite dishes. At my other restaurants, I would say we have had collards and kimchi–that is one dish that has been on the menu at my other restaurants since day one and people go nuts for it.

With Bourbon & Beyond being a music, food and drink festival, is there is anyone you would like to do a music-cooking collaboration with? Who would be your dream collaboration in music to cook with?

That is a hard one to say. So I would say I would love to cook with Bob Dylan because I want to meet him. I know he would be horrible at it so it wouldn’t be the best, I think it would be hilarious because he would be so uninterested.

I think so many, in this odd way, I know Yo-Yo Ma is really into food and I have met him once and I think he would be really cool. It wouldn’t be the hottest bill at a music festival but I think it would be cool to cook with him.

My last question is about The Lee Initiative you have. Can you describe what the Lee Initiative is and how it works?

In response to the #MeToo movement, we wanted to be something that was positive and long-lasting. We didn’t want to do something that was a knee-jerk statement, especially in the restaurant industry, what we needed was a positive take or positive spin that wasn’t negative or finger-pointing.

We wanted to create an initiative where we pick five young chefs who are women and in the early stages of their career and give them mentorship opportunities.

They go to a city and train with a very successful female chef and then they come back and we do a dinner at the Beer House together and we eat their food. It is a 40-week program and it is very intense. They get to see everything from culinary training to media training to financial training to sort of life coaching.

It is a way to give them a window of what it is like to be a leader in this industry. We want to show them the path that is possible and the steps to take. After the program is over, they go back to their lives, back to their jobs, and we ask that they take a leadership role and get to a place they can be a head chef or owner or partner.

At that point, they call us again and they have a network of support that will help them succeed. It shows young women that leadership is not only attainable but we expect this from you. We want to see you take on this challenge and become the next generation of leaders in the restaurant industry.

Are most of the young women local or did they apply from all over the country?

The first year we limited it to only Kentucky. It is only local to Kentucky, but three cities in Kentucky. Next year we are going to expand to regionally and who knows from there. The response has been great, people have been so willing to help.

Some of these talented young female chefs will also be attending this year’s Bourbon & Beyond Festival.

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