A Korean-American who grew up in Brooklyn, Edward Lee trained in NYC kitchens and has spent the better part of a decade cooking
at 610 Magnolia in Louisville, which he co-owns.
Lee first gained national attention after a win on Iron Chef America, followed by a Top Chef stint. Earlier this year, Lee opened MilkWood, combining comfort bar food with an Asian pantry. (If you go: try his Asian fried chicken with collard greens and kimchi.)
Some of these signature recipes appear in his first book, Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen (Artisan Books, May 2013).
As befits a chef living in the heart of Bourbon country, this autumn Chef Lee launched a mellow, food-friendly Bourbon-rye combo called Chef Collaboration. Lee talked with Wine Enthusiast’s Spirits Editor, Kara Newman, about food, Bourbon and the appeal of nontraditional pairing options.
How did you start adding Asian flair to Southern dishes?
It all happened after I moved to Louisville almost 10 years ago. I was only planning to stay for a year, but I got my feet planted in Southern culture. And far from feeling foreign, it felt very at home, close to the culture of food I grew up in. I started to add Korean spices to iconic Southern dishes, and it just started naturally from there.
Why create a whiskey?
Trey Zoeller, of Jefferson’s, is a good friend. We were shooting the breeze, drinking Bourbon. I said to Trey, ‘I don’t think anyone has created a Bourbon from a food standpoint.’ But because of its nuances and sweetness—the corn—it has some great pairing opportunities.
People may balk at pairing liquor with food. Why should we try it?
The key: understanding this is not about pairing with basic barbecue, which is very sweet and one-note. I love wine, but sometimes, when faced with complex, straightforward, even bold and aggressive flavors in contemporary cuisine, wine can occasionally be outmatched. And Bourbon is just one of many drinks that can fill that void.
How does the age of the whiskey factor in when matching with meals?
In general, the older the Bourbon, the more it pairs with savory. The younger the Bourbon, the more it pairs with sweet. Older Bourbons pick up more savory, spicy and umami flavors.
What’s your favorite dish to sip ‘brown water’ with?
It really pairs beautifully with any fatty meat. Brisket, ribs, shoulder—anything coming off the grill. Braised brisket—if anything, that’s the perfect pairing with this Bourbon.
Are you working on other spirits?
No. I’m happy with the Bourbon now. It’s new for us. I have no idea how the public will receive it. We’ll see what happens.