With the pandemic-stricken restaurant industry collapsing around him, chef and restaurateur Edward Lee attempts to find rebirth amid the chaos.
The Bravo network just released the trailer for season 18 of Top Chef, which premieres April 1 and will feature Louisville chef Edward Lee, a former contestant, on a rotating panel of judges. In this piece, published in December, Chris Kenning talked to Lee about Top Chef, frozen pizza, belting out songs while shirtless in a karaoke bar and so much more, including the struggle to survive as a restauranteur during the pandemic. Lee said, “It’s hard for me to look at any kind of expansion when I’m literally in the middle of closing restaurants and I’m in the middle of trying to help other people not to close their restaurants. And I’m seeing some having their careers basically ruined. That’s been a psychological roller coaster.”
Edward Lee is running on practically no sleep. On this October night, he strides under a constellation of white pendant lamps and maroon cushioned seats in his newest restaurant, in downtown Cincinnati, eyeballing every detail from plants to garnishes, looking ever the Brooklyn-bred hipster chef in jeans and a feather-accented brimmed hat.
But he’s tired. Three weeks of filming Top Chef in Portland, Oregon, finished at 2 a.m. the night before on the West Coast, and his car for the airport came an hour later so he could jet to Cincinnati to oversee the soft opening of Khora. Named by Vogue as one of 2020’s most anticipated new restaurants, Khora is located in a former Payless shoe store, on the glass-walled ground floor of the new Kinley boutique hotel.
At 48, the shy and soft-spoken son of Korean immigrants ranks as one of Louisville’s most influential celebrity chefs and is lauded as a virtuoso for melding his Korean heritage and Southern cooking, while remaining an approachable guy who enjoys cheap beer, isn’t above a frozen pizza and loves to belt out Elvis in late-night karaoke bars.
The longtime Louisville food critic Nancy Miller marvels at how Lee somehow pulls off being both intense and relaxed, hallmarks that are in full swing tonight. He carries a plate of cheese to a group of a half-dozen friends who sit on plush sofas with his wife Dianne and their seven-year-old daughter, Arden. Everybody has driven up from Louisville to try dishes like a lamb ragout inspired by “Cincy-style” chili, and they sip wine, asking about Lee’s time in Portland. The speakers emit chill electronic music. “I’m a judge this time,” Lee says, casually munching, betraying no hint of the stress he has been under since the pandemic began. He carries his daughter, who hasn’t seen him in weeks, to a long dining table in the mostly empty restaurant. He holds hands across the table with his wife, with whom he delayed a re-exchange of 10-year-anniversary vows in June amid the scramble of industry mayhem. “You guys,” a friend says, smiling at them.
But Lee can’t sit still. He’s up again in short order, casing the joint. He looks at the bar. Reads a receipt. Notes the noise level may get too loud. Looks over a tropical plant. Decides the lobby needs a Khora sign. Greets a waiter to whom he issued a Moleskine notebook for orders. Bounds down a flight of stairs to the still-gleaming basement kitchen. Stirs a sauce. Chews on a roll as he talks about a social-media push and thinks out budgets.
Kevin Ashworth, Lee’s longtime right-hand chef who is now the executive chef at Khora (the name comes from the ancient wheat grain Khorasan), says compliments mean the most coming from Lee, whom he likens to a curt Korean father figure who doesn’t dole out gushing praise easily. Ashworth designed the menu after many iterations with input from Lee, who likes to sketch out new dishes on napkins and paper scraps. Forget the raisins with the Tallegio sauce, Lee told Ashworth, but try charred cabbage.
If opening a restaurant while the industry is collapsing around him sounds foolish, Lee won’t argue. Media expectations, being in a new city, months of pandemic delays. And the feeling that everything he has built is walking a razor’s edge. “It’s still nerve-wracking,” Lee says. “I’ve never opened a restaurant in a pandemic before.” He expects to be busy initially, though the restaurant will face seating restrictions like having tables six feet apart. He worries about a winter lull. “Normally, we’d have 80 people right now, with the press and the buzz and everything,” he says. “But because of COVID and the delays — it’s crazy, but we’re doing it.”
He pushes past a kitchen door, where a black-and-white photo of British chef Marco Pierre White, cigarette hanging from his mouth, is taped up with a quote: “There are many times in my life when I could’ve thrown in the towel. Many times in my life when I was on the floor.
“Never allow anybody to pick you up.
“Make sure you pick yourself up and dust yourself down.
“You take the knowledge from the experience and you grow.”
In the hellscape that is 2020, Lee has touched some of its sharper angles. He fought to keep alive his own restaurants — 610 Magnolia, Whiskey Dry and MilkWood in Louisville, and Succotash in Maryland and Washington, D.C. — while watching the pandemic shatter the dining industry. He saw doubts grow about the future of Louisville’s downtown, then witnessed racial-justice protests rock the city. He says that, at the pandemic’s worst, 85 percent of his 300-plus staff in all his restaurants were out of work. “Every day I’m on the phone with my lawyer, my accountant, my insurance agent, trying to keep this thing afloat,” he says. He has described it as being like piling sandbags against a tsunami.
But Lee’s 2020 has seemed to reinforce what makes him tick — the ability to quickly pivot and adapt, to dust himself down, as White put it, and find rebirth amid the chaos. He started a relief kitchen that went national, serving a half-million meals to thousands of laid-off restaurant workers with the help of deep-pocketed sponsors, chefs and volunteers. He turned MilkWood, in the basement of Actors Theatre, into the McAtee Community Kitchen, acknowledging the racial reckoning while feeding hungry Louisvillians. He launched a similar program to feed 8,000 public-school families a week. He also refused to board up Whiskey Dry at Fourth Street Live.
Lee, who earned a degree in English literature from New York University in 1995 and loves a good metaphor, knows firsthand that calamity can seed change — even if you don’t know where it’s going to take you at the time. It was 9/11 that upended his life in New York and signaled the start of something he never imagined. “It was a huge tragedy that brought me to Louisville,” he says. “And now we’re living in the second-biggest crisis in my lifetime. What happens after that this time? I don’t have an answer yet.”
Weeks earlier, Lee was on lockdown, munching on a salad and peering into a Zoom call on his computer camera from a Portland hotel room with wallpaper of hand-drawn birds. He said he had been sworn to secrecy and couldn’t discuss filming Bravo’s hit show Top Chef, which is scheduled to air some time in 2021. “Cannot reveal,” he said.
It may have felt a bit like home — Portland wracked by protests and a local restaurant scene hit hard by COVID — except for the added smog from wildfires sweeping the West Coast. The 18th season of Top Chef filmed in Portland and locations from Tillamook Bay to the vineyards of the Willamette Valley. “We’re sworn to secrecy,” Lee said. “We have to stay in a bubble and everything. So we don’t see much of the outside world.” Lee’s evenings consisted of hanging with his bubble friends at a hotel restaurant, watching the NBA Finals, jumping rope to battle against inactivity, returning emails and calls, and chatting with his wife and daughter back in Louisville.
The road that brought him to this point started on the opposite coast four decades ago. He grew up in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood near Brighton Beach, amid Jamaicans, Indians, Italians and Russians. “We lived in a very immigrant-heavy neighborhood. There were so many different flavors and spices and smells and cultures. I think I told my parents when I was 10 years old that I was going to be a chef, and they were like, ‘Sure, and your friend’s going to be an astronaut,’” says Lee, the second of two children. Eating a mix of his parents’ mostly utilitarian food — such as budae-jjigae, a Korean stew made with whatever was around — and his grandmother’s cooking, he was a kid “good at math, terrible at basketball” who later tried his hand at graffiti art and wore ripped jeans and long hair. He began working in restaurants as a teen. “It wasn’t poverty, but we were poor,” he says. “You’d take the subway and you could see Manhattan. It was so close, but it was so far away. All this glitz and glitter I didn’t have. It was like, ‘I want that.’ To me, the only way to get there was restaurants and food. For some reason, the epitome of wealth was eating in a nice restaurant” — places with Italian linens, German silverware and $30,000 espresso machines.
His parents insisted he go to college. “It’s very important to Korean parents that you graduate college. I actually didn’t want to go, but they said, ‘You have to,’” he says. He decided to study what he wanted. “I had four years of just reading all the best books in the world” — James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, and William Faulkner’s writings on the South, which may have planted a seed.
Lee’s father had various jobs and, occasionally drawn to get-rich-quick schemes, bought the Big Apple Diner, located in a New York district once known for its welfare hotels and prostitutes, including one Lee describes in his book Buttermilk Graffiti as smelling of plastic carnations and bubble gum. She liked early-morning egg sandwiches. But the diner was soon failing, forcing Lee to return from the University of Michigan to New York, where he transferred to NYU. “They were running the restaurant into the ground, so I came back. The cook was a drunk. He never showed up. The food was garbage. I’d wake up at 4 a.m., go to the restaurant and make the fucking pancake batter,” he says. “I’d go to this 10 a.m. Latin class with muffin mix on my shirt, with all these pre-law entitled kids. It was awful.”
Despite his own foray into the business, Lee’s father, who died in 2018, still didn’t want his son to cook. He wanted Lee to be a diplomat and had named him after Edward “Ted” Kennedy. “When (my father) died, he’d never eaten a single meal that I ever cooked. He was that against it,” Lee says. But Lee had his mother’s persistence, and maybe her stubbornness, and he eventually opened a 30-seat restaurant called Clay, which served kalbi, or Korean barbecue, in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood. The former Chinese joint soon became a hipster hit. In July 1998, a two-out-of-four-stars review in the Daily News called Clay “the first Korean tapas bar in Nolita … and perhaps the Western Hemisphere,” with decor of “odd-shaped lamps, lacquered tables and school chairs.” It noted that Lee’s career path was part of an upswing in “increased ethnic pride and rediscovery.” (And, for what it’s worth, it described the deep-fried shrimp as “insipid and undercooked.”)
Lee, living in a railroad apartment on Avenue C in the East Village, spent most of his time in the sweaty kitchen, cooking for crowds on evenings that often stretched into raucous late nights, including an infamous one — a music photographer’s party that drew Lou Reed. Lee wound up partying with Joe Strummer of the Clash. He dated a Japanese actress. But the kitchen was too small, and he was overwhelmed. “It was a hot mess,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
The restaurant industry took a hit after 9/11. A friend, who had just celebrated his 30th birthday at Clay, worked for a financial firm in the World Trade Center and died that day. “He was actually on the phone with another friend of mine when the phone went dead because the plane hit,” Lee says.
Lee’s landlord wanted to boost his rent, and Lee had grown tired of partying and cooking. “I saw the writing on the wall — New York was going to be not in a good place for a long time,” he says. “I was really in a bad way.” He did some traveling and along the way learned about 610 Magnolia, the tiny but exclusive restaurant in Old Louisville. Lee wrote to owner Ed Garber, asking to cook during Derby Week, partly because he wanted to see the “seersucker-and-bourbon spectacle.” Garber had been considering selling the place and was impressed with Lee after his stint cooking for well-to-do Derby-goers. Garber saw a serendipitous opportunity and could tell that Lee was at a turning point in his life.
“You’re clearly depressed,” Lee recalls Garber telling him, urging him to make a new start and take over his restaurant.
“You’re crazy,” Lee thought. “I’m not leaving New York City for Louisville.”
But Garber kept calling. “After a while, I said, ‘I’ll try it. I’ll do it for six months. And after six months, I’ll move back to New York and resume my life.’ And that was 19 years ago,” Lee says.
Few realize it, but it took him years to develop his Korean-meets-Southern style, mixing flavors like sorghum, ham and bourbon with kimchi and gochujang. (Don’t call it fusion. He hates that outdated term, saying it brings up a host of cultural and racial inequities and is too often used to describe really bad wasabi mashed potatoes.) “For the first six or seven years (in Louisville), I was really a student of Southern food. I learned from Black cooks, mostly female Black cooks, in the West End and Smoketown,” he says. He ate collard greens and pigs’ feet, and has written about the hot-water cornbread at Shirley Mae’s in Smoketown. He traveled the South, stopping at every little catfish shack and fried chicken place he could find. It struck a familiar chord of comfort that reminded him of the food of his youth, and it came together magically with his roots and the fine-dining vibe at 610. “He brought his own creativity and style,” Garber says. “I was more rooted in an older style. His was more modern.”
Lee has said he found his culinary voice in Louisville, even if at times he initially kept people at arm’s length. “In the beginning I was very solitary. Maybe I regret that a little now. I was still in my own head and really just not wanting to be mentored,” he says.
“Sounds awful saying it that way. It wasn’t that I wasn’t listening. I knew I am easily influenced, and I was insecure and young. For the first five to seven years, I really kept to myself and really just worked. As I get older, I’m much more open and friendly to people,” though, even now, “I don’t really hang out with chefs. I like being influenced in other ways — nature, art or reading books that aren’t about food.”
At 610, his menu included things like crispy pork shoulder with tamarind glaze and sausage noir with chow-chow. “He is willing to take risks but not just for the sake of taking a risk and being showy. He wants there to be a reason for everything,” Miller, the food critic, says.
Matt Jamie, owner of Bourbon Barrel Foods, says he got to know another side of Lee years ago when they tripped together to West Virginia to meet friends. “We stopped at a gas station to get a bunch of crap: candy, pork rinds — just junk food. And we stopped at Sbarro,” he says, adding, “The man eats really fast. I mean, he inhales it.”
In 2010, Lee married Dianne, who was from rural Indiana and was working in marketing for Yum! Brands. They’d fallen for each other after meeting at the former Azalea restaurant on Brownsboro Road while she was taking culinary courses at Sullivan University. “I was out with friends. We started talking and kind of never stopped,” she says. Another pivotal moment came that year when Lee appeared on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, winning by developing dishes that had to include beef tongue and halibut cheek. He says he was approached by the show and has no idea how they found him. A year later, in 2011, he competed on season nine of Top Chef, winning two elimination challenges before exiting the show. He has also appeared on the PBS series The Mind of a Chef. In one scene, he jokes with his mother as they cook.
“Remember when I was younger, everyone was afraid I was going to become a cook?” he says on the show. “And then you thought I was going to be poor my whole life? Now look at me. Are you proud of me?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” she replies. “You are very lucky.”
Lee says he has shot at least four pilots for cooking-related shows that didn’t make the cut. “Some people are natural on TV. I was not,” he says. “When it’s like, ‘We put so much money into developing this pilot for you and you suck,’ you feel terrible. They get mad at you, and then like a year goes by and they’re like, ‘You know, we got this other thing. Maybe this time it’ll work.’ So I just keep putting my hat in the ring.”
Meantime, he opened MilkWood in Actors Theatre, offering ramen and bulgogi fried chicken, and the burger restaurant Whiskey Dry at Fourth Street Live, and venturing to the East Coast to start Southern-inspired Succotash restaurants in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He followed his Smoke and Pickles cookbook with the 2018 travel memoir Buttermilk Graffiti, which won the James Beard Foundation award for Book of the Year. (He has been nominated or a semifinalist for a James Beard cooking award 10 times.) While many chefs outsource their books to ghostwriters, Lee did not, refusing to have a researcher “look shit up” for him.
Over the years, Lee has also been asked to cook at festivals and special events in places like Italy, Malaysia and Korea. He brought Ashworth, the right-hand man, with him to Kuala Lumpur, where Ashworth recalls cooking for a well-heeled group at a Hennessy-sponsored event in a ritzy hotel. After dinner, Ashworth says, “all these guys are all drunk off Hennessy, and they want to parade us around, take us out, show us a good time.” He tells of how they all piled into Sprinter vans to hit a karaoke bar, where Lee belted out some Elvis. “He loves some Kenny Rogers, too,” Ashworth says. “He’s a guy who likes to take his shirt off at a karaoke bar and awkwardly dance and doesn’t care who is watching.”
Around the time Lee’s D.C. restaurants opened, stories circulated about him moving away from Louisville. He kind of did: His daughter attends school in D.C., where they rent a place, but they spend maybe five months a year, summers and holidays in Louisville, where they own a home in the Highlands. He says some food writers miscast the idea that he was moving his base of operations to D.C. “There was a weird thing where people in D.C. were like, ‘Are you living here? Are you moving here?’ And I very nonchalantly said, ‘Yeah, I’m moving to D.C.,’” he says, meaning he was going to rent a house and be a presence in the city. “And they said, ‘Oh, cool, so you’re leaving Louisville for good.’ And I’m like, ‘I didn’t say that.’ And then the Louisville people are like, ‘Well, Edward has said fuck off to Louisville.’
“People couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that I lived in two cities, that I don’t have to choose.”
Lee knew it was coming. But that didn’t make Monday, March 16, any easier.
On that day, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced that restaurants and bars would be closed for in-person dining as of 5 p.m. (In November, amid a surge in COVID cases, the governor instituted a similar shutdown.) In an instant, many restaurant workers were about to lose their livelihood. Lee had thought he and his team would have weeks before widespread closures reached Kentucky. “We were all in shock. We thought we had more time to prepare,” he says. “We went right into crisis mode.”
Ashworth, who has been executive chef at 610 and culinary director of Lee’s local restaurants, was watching the governor’s announcement on TV when his phone lit up. It was Lee. “How quickly can you open a relief kitchen?” Lee asked. “Can you serve meals tomorrow?”
Lee knew the shutdown would inflict pain, and he wanted to do something. He had food and cooks. And what he could do was feed people. He’d previously served meals to TSA workers at the airport during a government shutdown. So they cleaned out the walk-in coolers and got to work. By the following day, 610 was operating as a relief kitchen, pumping out meals and providing supplies to laid-off workers. “By Wednesday, we had served 250 people. Thursday was 350. That first week was out of control,” he says. The food, from pork to potatoes, would come from Lee’s restaurants as well as suppliers like Dare to Care, Creation Gardens, bar Vetti and even American Airlines as time went on. On day four, Maker’s Mark asked to help and provided seed money for Lee’s effort to expand to other cities: Seattle, Chicago, Houston, Denver, Atlanta, New Orleans. Audi later signed on. “We had almost 20 kitchens up in the first three weeks,” Lee says.
It was all done under his nonprofit Lee Initiative, run by former 610 manager Lindsey Ofcacek and started after the #MeToo movement as a way to mentor a handful of women chefs. Suddenly, the Lee Initiative staff of two — Lee and Ofcacek — were running a growing national nonprofit. “We were working 18-hour days and sleeping in shifts,” Ofcacek says. “I would spend 10 hours a day just on the phone.” Between March and April, they spent $2.2 million to feed families. By May, when restaurants were reopening, they shifted again, putting up $1 million toward 58 small-family-farm grants that allowed more than 60 restaurants to order produce and meat for free.
All along, Lee’s remaining staff faced tremendous stress and uncertainty. Lee’s wife Dianne recalls thinking, “‘Well, how long can this possibly last? Nobody’s going to let businesses fail.’ My famous last words.”
Ashworth remembers the exhaustion. “And my wife is kind of freaking out about things, so I start freaking out. What if I get it? What about health insurance? What about my children’s health insurance? All those things just start rushing at you,” he says. Lee’s reply: “Have I never had you? I got you.” Lee says he was proud that he never had to lay off any managerial staff and kept them on their health insurance.
Then in late May, on the night Lee planned to reopen MilkWood, hundreds of Louisville residents poured into the streets just blocks away to protest the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor, shot dead in her apartment in March by LMPD officers serving a search warrant. Nikkia Rhodes, a Lee Initiative mentor and former MilkWood employee who is a culinary instructor at Iroquois High School, recalls answering a phone call from Ofcacek. “She had been to protests and said, ‘We want to do something to get involved. What can we do?’” Rhodes says. “So we decided we wanted to do a community kitchen.”
The next night, June 1, National Guard troops shot and killed David McAtee at 28th Street and Broadway, where he ran YaYa’s BBQ stand and was known for feeding police officers. It hit home for Lee, who called McAtee’s barbecue “damn good.” Rhodes had a connection too: Her mother had helped run a Volunteers of America kitchen, where McAtee also pitched in. “I would be in the kitchen with her — organizing canned goods, unloading Sysco trucks, reading recipes. When I saw him in that kitchen, I felt really connected,” she says.
They named the MilkWood space McAtee’s Kitchen and began feeding people in Smoketown and west Louisville’s California neighborhood. By June 15, with the help of Rhodes’ culinary students, they were handing out 250 family meals three days a week.
Video seems to show McAtee firing his own gun before he was killed, and Lee has gotten some blowback for using the name McAtee’s Kitchen. “I got a couple of death threats over that” from people “sending me messages online and emails,” he says. “To me, he was a chef, I’m a chef. He loved his community, I love my community. And there are countless stories of him giving out free food. He was generous in giving food to those in need. And that’s what we do at McAtee’s Kitchen.” McAtee’s family asked Lee to speak at the funeral. “I said, ‘I’m going to earn your trust and make sure his name lives on in a way that’s honorable,’” he says.
Longtime Louisville food writer Steve Coomes, who has followed Lee’s career for decades, says Lee’s status helped draw the support that could have otherwise been difficult to garner. “I don’t know a lot of people who can shift gears like that” while “elevating a problem and making something positive out of a terrible situation,” Coomes says. “That’s the new part of celebrity chefs that’s really admirable. It’s no longer, ‘Let me show you my awards.’ It’s, ‘Help me feed these people who need help.’ I think that’s where Ed is now. And really, that gets more press than his restaurants.”
As many downtown workers stayed home because of the pandemic, the protests continued for months. They were mostly peaceful, but some businesses, including restaurants, were damaged early on. By September, when Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron was preparing to announce whether or not a grand jury would charge the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, the city had declared a state of emergency and put up concrete barriers. One gas station even invited an armed right-wing militia group. Downtown was boarded up. Along Fourth Street, one place stood out: Whiskey Dry. “They asked me if I wanted to board it up. I said no,” Lee says, noting that most protests weren’t violent or destructive, apart from some trash fires and minor damage. “It sends a bad message. It’s creating defensiveness, this whole message about fear, like it’s us against them” and feeding a narrative that protests were “turning downtown Louisville into some kind of war zone. Which it is not.” Hours after Cameron announced the officers wouldn’t be charged with Taylor’s death, Ashworth watched a live-streamer walk past Whiskey Dry. “And he goes, ‘Whiskey Dry! Props to you guys.’”
Lee says he’s no activist. And he keeps his politics private. He realizes free food “is not going to solve all the world’s problems. But it’s a starting point. When you cook a meal for someone, you basically tell them that you care about them and that you love them.”
By November, Lee and his team were preparing a new effort — partnering with the city, JCPS and Churchill Downs to employ 50 people in the track’s unused kitchens to make food from scratch (with ingredients from local farms and dishes like roasted pork and potatoes and broccolini). They plan to provide 8,000 meals a week for families of four, so 32,000 servings, to public-school children not getting food at school. The $1.6 million effort received CARES Act money. On a recent November day, Lee is in his wine studio across the street from 610 for a photo shoot to promote a Lee Initiative fundraiser that will support his nonprofit by selling 7,500 donated bottles of specially made Maker’s Mark “Community Batch” bourbon.
Lee mentions Mayor Greg Fischer, who helped make the JCPS partnership happen despite all of the city upheaval. “We were calling the Mayor’s Office in the middle of the protests when, quite frankly, he was getting his ass kicked all over the place, and they made time for us,” Lee says.
“When people can get two family meals a week, that means more money for rent, school supplies, winter clothes,” he adds. “I would be happy to eat this at home. I think that sends a message. Certain segments of the population in Louisville have been ignored. In every city. And that’s what the whole protest thing and the civil unrest is about. We’ve ignored people. Louisville has risen in the past couple years to being one of the coolest cities in the country. But not west Louisville. And why not? This is a way of saying, ‘We value you.’”
He gets plenty frustrated at times. “We’re not getting a bailout from the federal government, and we’re not getting leadership — state, federal, even local. We’ve been left to our own devices,” he told Bon Appétit in December, in a piece titled “I’m Afraid It’s Too Late to Save Restaurants.” “There’s a huge feeling of abandonment. You devote your life to the restaurant business, you pay your taxes, and then you realize there’s no help coming from anywhere.” As 2020 neared its end, Lee knew waiters, bartenders and staffers who were depressed, struggling to find new work, too ashamed to say they were going hungry.
Dianne, who now helps with the family businesses and the nonprofit, says behind all the public outreach were some private and emotional times spent worrying about what was being lost and what would happen, especially early into the pandemic. She would come downstairs at 2 a.m., and her husband, a night owl, would be up, pecking away at the computer, concocting plans, returning emails.
“This is going to be hard to talk about,” she says. “We would cry together as a family sometimes. Just the sadness that seemed impossible to avoid, trying to come up with anything, everything we could do for our people, to help the community. The weight….” She trails off, fighting back tears. “Needless to say, those were tough days.”
“Sorry, Chef Lee,” says a production crew member near a trio of cameras, a 12-foot boom mic, lights and video screens. He’s apologizing for asking Lee to reshoot a scene for a web series on Oklahoma Joe’s grills and smokers. Lee just laughs. No worries. He’d rolled up in an Audi SUV with the Lee Initiative logo, wearing a signature plaid shirt and jeans. Now it’s 10 a.m. on this cloudless October morning, and Lee stands amid the black stillhouses of the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky.
Lee ties on an apron in front of one of the company’s grills to demonstrate a recipe for pork chops with bourbon-soy marinade. “The caramel, the leather, the hay, the butterscotch notes,” he says of a Knob Creek bourbon he’s reducing before preparing some shiitake mushrooms and Brussels sprouts. Then a backhoe starts working, creating a piercing jackhammering sound. The director silently spreads his arms and looks skyward, as if to say, “Why, Lord?” He says he’s grateful to have Lee, who is a “hot” chef right now. “I don’t analyze shit like this,” Lee jokes on a break. “They pay me, I do it. Especially nowadays. I’m happy for any work.”
While Lee’s celebrity may typically blunt the impact of the restaurant industry’s woes, Ofcacek says, “I don’t think it protects you in this environment. He’s not protected himself. None of us are.”
In September, a National Restaurant Association survey found that nearly 100,000 restaurants, or one in six nationwide, had closed either permanently or long term. Nearly three million restaurant employees were still out of work, and the industry was on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of the year. The Kentucky Restaurant Association estimates that about 20 percent of restaurants will ultimately close, depending on if or when a new round of aid comes through and how brutal winter is for businesses. Coomes, who has covered the business of restaurants for three decades, says he’s surprised that the restaurant “bloodbath” hasn’t been worse. Despite more dire predictions, he estimates closures have been “closer to 30 percent. But the early assistance in government aid is running out. So people talk about the second wave, and the restaurant industry is talking about the second wave of closings. It could be just dreadful. Some say the worst is yet to come. I’m not sure.”
Gov. Beshear closed indoor dining again until at least mid-December amid a fast-rising virus spike that broke records and refilled ICUs with COVID patients. Some restaurant owners revolted, vowing to reopen whether Beshear allowed it or not. “The options for restaurants right now are to go further into debt or to close,” Lee told Bon Appétit. “If we make 80 percent of our income now, that’s a great day. It’s like a Saturday night with all the tables booked. But then there are days when we’ve done 15 percent of our normal revenue. Those are days where it’s actually cheaper for me to keep the lights off and close the doors.”
Lee says 610 has a loyal clientele but a small dining room. Whether or when MilkWood will reopen is unclear, as it’s dependent on idle Actors Theater, which it sits inside. Whiskey Dry, Lee says, is “in the middle of Fourth Street, and they’re not doing so well right now. It’s not just me. It’s any business that’s downtown right now. It’s just in a world of hurt. So we’re just literally looking at it day by day.”
Lee is trying to get his arms around the contradictions. Sometimes he seems pessimistic and worried. On the other hand, he’s still got offers coming in to start new businesses. “It’s hard for me to look at any kind of expansion when I’m literally in the middle of closing restaurants and I’m in the middle of trying to help other people not to close their restaurants. And I’m seeing some having their careers basically ruined,” he says. “That’s been a psychological roller coaster. I haven’t made any decisions about what’s going to happen going forward.”
When Louisville’s downtown will return to life isn’t clear, nor is how restaurants will change permanently. Will dining out become less common after the pandemic finally recedes? “Louisville is at a really critical point right now,” Lee says. “But it’s not lost. You hear people saying, ‘Oh, well, Louisville’s dead. Downtown’s dead for the next 10 years.’ And I don’t believe that. I don’t think it’s true at all. But it takes people to stop the fearmongering and stop the rhetoric.”
Garber, too, who is watching from the safe confines of his Westport farm, predicts Lee will be OK. He’s giving him a break on payments for the 610 property he still owns. But he does say people may dine out less in the future. Perhaps, he says, 2020 will wash away some of the “bullshit” in the food scene, where there is “a lot more flash than substance.”
As 2020 draws nearer to the end, Lee says he has become closer to staff and family. “I’ve never been in one place for seven months probably since I was in high school. So that’s been very strange. But it’s been good too. It’s giving me time to think about things, and obviously run the nonprofit,” he says. He has spent more time cooking at 610, writing up menus and coming up with creative dinners like high-end bento boxes. Ashworth jokes that at one point Lee was “almost around too much.”
At their Highlands home, Lee and his wife learned the joys and misery of nontraditional learning with Arden. “That’s a big mess. We can’t stand it,” he says. He did get to make more dinners. “If you saw my fridge and home and saw what I ate, it would look pretty pedestrian,” he says, mentioning meals of chicken, noodles and jars of spaghetti sauce over pasta. “I enjoy a frozen pizza as much as the next person.”
And he has thought hard about Derby. This year, protesters marched outside Churchill Downs, arguing that Derby is a symbol of the haves and have-nots. Derby was strange this year, with no fans in the stands because of the pandemic and few visitors in town. Lee wonders if there’s a version of Derby that’s “not so exclusive,” that generates more profits to help those in need.
His nonprofit work over the year has been “maybe the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done in my life. I can’t envision a career going forward without it. But in my heart of hearts, I’m still a chef. That’s the core of my being.
“We’re all re-evaluating what it means to be Americans, to have justice in this country. There’s a lot to unpack, and you can’t do it in the middle of it. We’re still in the eye of the storm. Right now, I’m still trying to keep my head above water. But the America that comes out the other side is going to be different than the one behind us.”
On an overcast fall day outside the California Community Center, Nikkia Rhodes has hauled hundreds of trays of pork roast, rice and vegetables to tables near a sign that says McAtee’s Kitchen. “I watched Top Chef. It’s so funny seeing him in that setting. To me he’s just Ed,” she says, meaning the Ed who took her Iroquois High culinary students to a dinner at Jeff Ruby’s, a meal unlike they’d ever had. They decided Lee was all right.
She says McAtee’s Kitchen is meant not just to fill hungry stomachs but to prompt soul-searching. “I hope we can ask the questions and fix the underlying problems,” she says. “Why is it so easy to give out 250 free meals a day?”
Soon people start pulling up. Volunteers pass plastic bags heavy with food through open car windows. One man zips to the curb on a scooter carrying his wife and two children, trying to figure out how to transport their food too. An SUV drives up, with Zula Bailey-Parker, her husband, Gulaskie Parker, and their children. They’ve never heard of Edward Lee. They’ve never heard of 610 Magnolia or MilkWood or Whiskey Dry, much less dined there.
The moment harkens to a passage in Buttermilk Graffiti, when Lee visits Hosanna’s Kitchen in west Louisville to get the cook to demonstrate how she makes a pork and sauerkraut dish. Afterward, she tells him matter-of-factly, “No magic here. Just food.”
“Oh, OK,” Parker says upon hearing about Lee’s reputation. “Well, it’s really good. We do fall short sometimes, being disabled, on fixed incomes and raising kids.”
“This is a godsend,” Bailey-Parker says.
The couple drives off, still facing uncertainty, but buoyed by a hot meal.
This article was originally published in print in December 2020.