Top Chef alum Edward Lee studied English at NYU. While undergraduate English majors are not necessarily great writers, something about Lee's background as a student of literature infuses his new cookbook Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories From a New Southern Kitchen. It's not just a collection of recipes and a story about place; it's a carefully crafted, well-written statement about Lee's identity, the Brooklyn-born graffiti-writing son of Korean immigrants who moved to Louisville and reimagined his food (and himself) through the ingredients he encountered.
Lee's book is a memoir first and a cookbook second, which makes sense considering that a serious chef would have a hard time telling a life's story without the aid of recipes. Perhaps a less literary chef would not have established such themes, but Lee tackles some big ones.
Maybe the heart of it begins with his exploration of what it means to be an American: "We start with one family and then, magically, we are allowed to reinvent ourselves in whoever we want to be." Identity is fluid to Lee, a point he drives home with a subtle metaphor about the impermanence of the tags he'd leave on warehouse walls and subway cars. Meals are impermanent too, he reminds us, before launching into the story of his 2003 collision with the traditional ingredients of his new Kentucky kitchen -- stunningly sour buttermilk, country ham, and bourbon.
The experience was transformative -- for Lee the person and Lee the chef. Despite the glaring differences, he found that the places and people he came from were not incompatible with what he encountered: extreme flavors, sweet, hot, and intense, the funk of buttermilk, miso, fish sauce, and soy, pickles upon pickles, the bracing saltiness of cured meats softened by relishes and chutneys and plenty of smoke. He saw parallels between the tough, honest, proud people who cooked what he knew as a child and those he met and learned from in Kentucky.
On the very first page of Smoke & Pickles, Lee struggles to come up with a catchy, shorthand label for the food he cooks. To some extent, every chef reflects his identity in his food, but Lee's approach seems less "farm to table" or simply "New Southern" than environmental, autobiographical. You can chart his course in what he cooks, and he emphasizes that point again and again.
The essays that accompany each section are wonderful -- "Lamb and Whistles," for instance, takes the reader on Lee's lamb-y journey from a Penn Station gyro to a broth in Lyon to a farm in Virginia. Yet, even if taken as a collection of inventive and evocative recipes, Smoke & Pickles does not disappoint.
Thumbing through the pages, glancing at the fairly sumptuous photos, you'll immediately want to try your hand at pheasant and dumplings, curried lamb prosciutto, chicken and country ham pho, cola-braised ham hocks, parsnip and black pepper biscuits, and frog's legs with fish sauce and brown butter. Barbecue enthusiasts will find plenty of dishes with which to tantalize summer dinner guests, including what looks to be a fairly unstoppable cumin-and-smoked-paprika-perfumed pulled lamb BBQ. Helpful lessons abound, from a home-curing tutorial, to advice on how to build a cheap smoker, to clear, foolproof rules for deep-frying.
Many of the recipes are complicated, made up of several components that themselves require somewhat extensive prep. A number involve ingredients that might necessitate online shopping or a visit to Koreatown, but big deal. The secondary pay-off, as with many cookbooks, is that the components of many preparations are adaptable to a cook's own whims, which cannot be an evolution this author wouldn't celebrate. For instance, corn-bacon relish suits grilled shrimp just as well as the pulled pork Lee suggests. The kimchi remoulade works on a pan-fried catfish sandwich in addition to Lee's rice bowl with jicama, cilantro, and pork sausage patties.
Lee sums up his cooking in Kentucky as "the act of distilling beauty from ... imperfections that exist around us," citing the "muggy" summers that facilitate the aging of Kentucky's great bourbons, the profusion of wild mint for refreshing juleps, and the appreciation for river fish that comes with the absence of an ocean. All places are imperfect to some extent, and all cooks with regional pride cope with the imperfections of the place they call home. Lee however seems uniquely, powerfully attuned to this condition. The product of that sensitivity is this vivid celebration in book form.
If you want your own copy, hold off on Amazon. On Monday, June 24, Lee, chef of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood in Louisville, will be signing copies of the book at Bibigo in Beverly Hills. The party will last from 7-9 p.m. and feature snacks inspired by the book (though not necessarily Lee's own recipes) and "complimentary" bourbon cocktails. In addition, for the $50 price tag, guests will receive their own copy of the cookbook and a bottle of Bibigo marinade.
If you need more convincing, read on for Lee's recipe for chicken and waffles: