Edward Lee’s new book Smoke & Pickles should come with a consumer warning label: Exercise caution when starting this book because YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO PUT IT DOWN.
Beautifully written and designed, the volume is part memoir of how a cocky Korean-Brooklyn kid finds his footing in a culturally diverse neighborhood and food scene, experiencing bittersweet success as a hipster New York City chef before finding his destiny at 610 Magnolia, a Louisville restaurant serving contemporary Southern fare. Fellow English majors who morphed into foodies will be nodding to the many literary references, as well as to this good advice from Cola Ham Hocks with Miso Glaze: “Braise for 2 hours while you read some Walt Whitman poems.”
The balance of the book is a 130-recipe collection that ranges from simple to complex. Some are restaurant favorites that have been retooled for home cooks, but most reflect the dishes and drinks Lee makes in his kitchen to enjoy with friends. Reading them, you can almost smell the sometimes bourbon-spiked, umami-rich flavors.
The acknowledged culinary genius and three-time runner-up for James Beard honors will be celebrated Wednesday evening by Chef Colin Bedford with a special dinner at Fearrington Village in Pittsboro. The event starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $85, which includes dinner, a beer tasting, gratuity and a signed copy of Smoke & Pickles.
Lee says he looks forward to returning to the Triangle and visiting with close friend Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner, who will introduce him.
“Every time I’ve been to the Raleigh area, it’s always ended up a very colorful evening,” he says with a laugh while driving from his home to Oxford, Miss., to participate in a Southern Foodways Alliance event. “I always enjoy the people there. They give me lots of libation.”
The dinner will be a homecoming in other ways for Lee. “I have an uncle that I haven’t talked to in like 15 years. He called me of the blue about a week ago to say he lives about 15 minutes away from Fearrington,” he says.
His uncle is bound to find familiar flavors in the “contemporary approach to the Southern table” that Lee has made famous at 610 Magnolia. In his book, Lee attributes this to “smoke [as] the intersection between my two worlds”—referring to his Korean heritage and chosen Southern home.
“Korean grills and Southern barbecue have a lot in common,” he says. “And there are so many ways to infuse that smoky flavor into foods with great local ingredients like bourbon, bacon, sorghum—or to brighten them with the bite of a sharp pickle. It creates the perfect balance, the yin and yang, that makes a meal memorable.”
Lee has sought out big experiences and big flavors since childhood, taking risks and seeking art in the everyday. “Too many restaurants are just sort of recycling menus, trying to figure out what the people want,” he says. “The best independent restaurants in the world have a point of view. People are hungry for that. There’s a reason why you come to my restaurant in Louisville; it’s why I visit Ashley when I’m Raleigh and John Currence (of City Grocery) when I’m in Mississippi.”
Lee despises the term “fusion” for what he calls its “culinary racism,” the implication that Eastern cuisine needs to be “legitimized” by fusing it with more familiar Western fare. He sees some humor, however, in the notion that some eaters think the ultimate nexus of Southern and Korean food is KFC—not the fast-food franchise, but Korean Fried Chicken.
“I get asked to do that all the time,” he says, noting he recently tested a Korean fried chicken recipe that will be featured in a magazine. “Even within this simple idea, there are so many variations. It’s no different than going to five Southern homes and finding five different ways of making Southern fried chicken.”
Lee does include a fried chicken recipe in Smoke & Pickles that incorporates both smoky Filipino adobo spice and the curious Southern accompaniment of waffles (the recipe can be found in the online version of this story). “I’m not sure who first thought of serving fried chicken and waffles together, but if adding waffles helps you to feel better about eating fried chicken for breakfast, I’m all for it,” he writes. “This is my kind of soul food.”
“We tend to think of Southern food and culture as being one way, but when you look at the history, you see how wrong that is,” Lee says as he drives through the cradle of the Civil War on his way to Oxford. “For me, Southern culture represents an important part of American history. It’s always been very fertile and creative, incorporating influences from all over the world. I’m glad to be part of it.”