Edward Lee, executive chef and owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky, represents what the culinary industry is about in America. Lee – a Korean-American raised in Brookyln and trained in French kitchens – has been in Louisville, Kentucky for about a decade now. So, what you get is Asian inspired food, with Southern flavors, and a New York sensibility. We aren’t sure if a better combination exists.
Lee wowed us on this year’s season of Top Chef: Texas, consistently bringing a killer combination of raw talent and fierce competitive energy to the table. This competitive chef originally discovered his Louisville restaurant on a trip to the Kentucky Derby in 2003. He convinced the chef there at the time to let him help out for the week, and was offered the restaurant less than a year later. 610 Magnolia hosts a six-course, pre-fixed dinner that changes weekly and is only offered Thursday, Friday and Saturday – making it a menu of exclusivity. Here, Lee shares a recipe from the menu, details on his travels, favorite food spots in every city and what’s special about the way he executes food…
What’s different about your food?
I call it “A Contemporary Approach to the Southern Table” but, well, that doesn’t say much. The best way to explain it is: my food, like any good chef, is an extension of who I am. I am a child of Korean immigrants that grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Louisville, embracing the values and flavors of Southern cooking. That’s what makes me different, and my food.
Are you constantly making changes? How so?
We have three chefs in the kitchen excluding myself. Everyone is responsible for contributing to the menu. No one is allowed to just come in, work your station, drink a beer and go home. That kills a mind faster than working at a telemarketing company. They see things differently than I do, so they are pushed to make changes, contributions, voice an opinion. This way my menu is not all about my fragile ego. It’s about the best possible food coming out of this tiny kitchen. And it evolves, it morphs from one month to the next, it gets better each time, or we may find it is getting too safe and we push it in a different direction.
What’s special about a fixed menu?
There are two kinds of dinners. One, you shovel into your mouth with only the stuff you like to eat. This is comforting, safe, reliable but usually not too memorable. The other, you let go out of control, you tuck in and let yourself be taken on a journey. We try to do this, we try and give you an experience, a narrative that starts here and progresses through the night with surprises and flavors that maybe you’ve not had before, and ends in a place that is perhaps unfamiliar but satisfying nonetheless, because we’ve engaged not just your stomach but also your mind.
How do your travels and experiences play into your restaurant?
I see how other cultures approach the rituals of eating. I was just in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the street food is so explosively vibrant. Sitting in one place and eating a meal is boring to them. They eat through street carts of roti and food stalls that have ten different kinds of curry and drink stands that have a colorful array of sweet tropical drinks. Dinner is like 15 different nibbles of various meats, condiments, curries and dipping sauces. Something like that is inspiring – makes my restaurant feel like a snore. Now, I’m not going to go open a roti stand, but I do try and identify the philosophy of why they like eating this way and if can I add elements of that to my restaurant that improve upon the dining experience. Travel is good that way. You realize that we’re not the only opinion around and that there’s always something to learn from cultures that have been around a lot longer than ours.
Your go-to recipe when cooking outside the restaurant for family and friends…
Lemongrass-Habanero Marinade – all purpose, easy, tastes good on anything. Also Bourbon-Brown Butter – Again, you can dip grandma’s dried fruitcake in it and it will taste good.
Can you share some menu favorites from 610 Magnolia?
Well we change it up all the time. We actually eschew the term “signature dish.” If a dish sells too well, I find that a flaw. It means it’s too safe, too boring. We’ll then change it up. But some of the greatest hits have been “Black BBQ Beef Short Ribs with Pickled Cow’s Tongue,” “Edamame Hummus and Cilantro Pudding” also, “Wood Fired Oysters in Bourbon Brown Butter, Celeriac-Apple Puree, Pickled Lemon Rind and Country Ham”