An interview series in which Amazon Editors meet authors at their favorite bars.
Edward Lee's new cookbook, Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen (one of our Best of the Month picks for May), celebrates the chef's Brooklyn upbringing and his move to Louisville, Kentucky, where he opened his restaurant 610 Magnolia. Lee is also a multiple James Beard Award nominee and has been a competitor on both Iron Chef and Top Chef.
The bar he picked was KGB Bar, a barely lit dive bar with a certain Soviet charm. But I learned that KGB Bar is also a venerable writers' haunt, known for hosting literary events almost every night of the week. In fact, when I met up with Lee, there was a poetry reading going on, so the bartender gave us plastic cups for our drinks and headed for the stoop outside, where we talked about the book, bourbon, and his new baby.
So why'd you pick this bar?
For me, it was a number of reasons. It was the bar I used to frequent when I was in New York. It has a lot of nice memories for me, probably spent a couple of nights here sleeping on the banquette in the corner. For me, it represents an old school New York, back when people drank really hard and smoked really hard. It was an awesome place. Right out of college, I started working at a literary agency, so there were some writers that introduced me to it. I don't know if they still do now--it was fifteen years ago. But a lot of writers used to hang out here. So, it was just a great place to get drunk but also to trade ideas, and there were a lot of interesting people who were hanging out here--a fermentation tank of interesting people. What little memories I do have of here are fond memories.
What are you drinking?
I'm drinking bourbon on the rocks, Knob Creek.
Is that your go-to?
It's not, but they don't have anything else here.
One thing I like about this bar is that there are no mixologists. You don't come here for the drinks, you come here for the booze. There's a difference: they don't make cocktails, they serve drinks.
Where would you go for a nice cocktail in New York?
There are tons of places: Pegu Club, Pouring Ribbons, Please Don't Tell, for nice mixology drinks. But sometimes you just need a stiff drink.
As much as Smoke and Pickles is a cookbook, it's also about how your Korean-American identity influenced your cooking. Or did your cooking influence your Korean-American identity?
It's a little of both. As chefs, we all evolve. And with any kind of art form, the first way you express yourself is through mimicry and then you evolve. When you get to that point when you're comfortable and you find your own voice, it just becomes an expression of who you are. I don't care if you're a painter or a cook or whatever--it's who you are, and at that point, you have to come to grips with your identity and all those things that shape your identity. For me, obviously the Korean-American part is very important. But also by itself it wasn't enough. Like, so what? There are millions of Korean-Americans. It didn't solidify itself into something that was relevant for me. And in some ways, moving to the South, to a place that was so foreign and so different to me, not only created a new identity for me, but it helped galvanize the old identity into the new one. It was a weird journey, but it helped me in becoming a chef, helped me in creating an identity, it helped me with everything.
And what brought you to Louisville?
It's a long story. It wasn't that grandiose. I went on a whim--I took a road trip and ended up in Kentucky for the Derby. I liked it so much I decided I would go back and spend a year and see what happens. Originally I was only supposed to go for a year, and that was nine years ago. I try and explain it a little bit [in the book], but I don't know why that original attraction was there. The minute I stepped foot into Louisville, it felt like coming some place familiar even though I had never been there before. I'm sure the bourbon helped a little bit with that.
It's a very comfortable place, as are many cities in the South. I don't want to say it's random, but I think there's a southern sort of feel to it. Maybe if I had ended up in Birmingham, I might be there still. But it happened that Louisville was the first city I visited in the south.
I went on so many of these road trips: I went to Wisconsin, I went to Maryland, but something about Louisville pulled me in.
So, you would call Louisville home?
If we were drinking in Louisville, where would you take me?
Oh, I'd take you to a number of places. It depends on the time of day and what were we trying to accomplish.
The Derby was last weekend.
Yes it was!
Where would have watched the Derby?
We never watch the Derby because we are so busy in our kitchen preparing for the evening, so I've never actually been to a Derby and I've never watched a Derby. But we play it on the radio in the kitchen. It's a fun thing. At this point, we could probably bring a TV in there and watch it, but at this point, I kind of like just listening to it on the radio. If you ever listen to a horse race, it's such a different thing from watching it. The way they talk, the way they announce it--there's a rhythm, it's an art form, it's like poetry the way they call the horses.
Outside of Louisville and New York, what are other food towns you like?
There are so many. I love Portland. I think Portland is one of the most underrated but most incredible food towns. Obviously Austin has some incredible food. Boston, you don't immediately think about it, but some of the most incredible restaurants are in Boston. Charleston is on the map for that.
You just named all my favorite cities.
I love traveling that way because you get to see a regional representation of America. You really feel it in these restaurants. It's beautiful.
What are you working on now?
Well, I just had a baby.
Yeah, like a week ago. So, I'm working on the biggest project I've ever had.
This is the first?
Yeah, a little baby girl. She's going to be my project for the next eighteen years. I'm just chilling out, we just opened the restaurant two and a half months ago, we're promoting the book, and I guess the next thing for me is to go on a book tour.
The book really opened up a window to my writing, and I plan to do a lot more writing and continue to explore it.