Chef Edward Lee's Culinary Empire is a Tale of Two Cities
For 15 years, Chef Edward Lee has been wooing diners with his Southern-meets-classic French-meets-Asian food. Since opening 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2004, he’s gone on to open two more restaurants, including MilkWood, also in Louisville, and Succotash in Washington, D.C. He’s also earned multiple James Beard nominations, entertained the nation on Bravo! TV’s “Top Chef” and on the PBS show “The Mind of a Chef,” taught high school kids about business and the restaurant industry, and now is expanding his portfolio. In addition to all that, Lee recently announced a major life change, opting to move his family from Kentucky to D.C., even as he opens another concept, Whiskey Dry, back in Louisville. We caught up with Chef Lee to learn about all these projects and more.
Why did you decide to move to D.C.?
Succotash has been successfully open in Maryland for a year and a half now and we were approached with an opportunity to open another location in Penn Quarter, and it should open in mid- or late July. I have been going to D.C. once a month over the past year—I’ve been about 12 times—and my wife has joined me on some of those trips. We just thought it was a great city and, while D.C. is an international city, it’s technically [almost] in the South, so we feel at home there. There are actually a lot of Southern transplants in the city and it’s less than an hour away from other classic, Southern cities.
What will the new Succotash in D.C. be like?
This is a big restaurant, with over 9,000 square feet of space and 300 seats, and located right next to the Smithsonian. We sort of did the opposite of what people do when they open the flagship first, and then the satellite locations. We opened a smaller restaurant first, and this will be more of a flagship location where we will also be doing slightly more elevated cuisine. We will still have our famous chicken and waffles, and pork ribs and fried green tomatoes, but we’ll also focus on many new and innovative dishes. We’re competing in a much tougher market in downtown D.C., so we really wanted to respond to that and make sure we deliver a menu that’s delicious and innovative.
How is D.C. different than Louisville in terms of ingredients and diners?
Being closer to the coast, it definitely gives us an opportunity to focus more on seafood. I believe in local food, and in Kentucky there is no such thing as local seafood—so being in D.C. and being able to bring in seafood from the Atlantic is very exciting.
I’ve been successful in my career cooking the food I want to eat so I don’t plan on changing much about that to suit the D.C. market, and even though there may be a more international audience than in Louisville, that’s not really a huge consideration for me. The good thing is that diners today—and especially in D.C.—are open to everything. We do challenging food in Louisville, always trying to push the envelope. If someone told me 10 years ago that I would be running a restaurant serving pork ribs and ramen on the same menu, I would have said you’re crazy. But we did it in Louisville and we’re confident people in D.C. will be just as receptive. Having successful restaurants in Louisville opened my eyes to the theory that you should never underestimate your clientele. If you cook the food you love and it tastes great to you, chances are it’s going to taste great to someone else, too.
Speaking of Louisville, tell us about your new concept.
Whiskey Dry is definitely more of a bar concept, with many different whiskeys and a simpler menu of burgers and sides and desserts. I’m a huge whiskey fan and always wanted to open a whiskey bar, so when the opportunity came up I jumped on it—but I also realized I can’t just open a bar because I’m a chef. So I had to add a food element and we decided to do all from-scratch burgers that are ground in-house. They are served on buns homemade from scratch, with homemade ketchup and other toppings. Even though we will only have five burgers, each one will have a creative interpretation and pair with a different whiskey. For example, we will have a Japanese-inspired burger paired with a Japanese whisky. People are not always aware that they make whiskey in France, Belgium, and even Taiwan, so there have been a lot of opportunities to be creative with the food pairings, too.
You’re so busy with the new restaurants and the move and making sure your existing restaurants continue their success. How do you do it all?
I’ve been in Louisville for 15 years now, and a lot of my staff has been with me the whole time, or for numerous years. We also have strong systems. When we knew we were going to do a bigger restaurant in D.C., I started working on improving our systems and procedures even more. For the past two years, that’s all we have done. We have had plenty of time to plan. It’s one thing to be a chef/owner, but at some point you have to entrust the people who work for you—and your employees become less your employees and more your partners. When I opened 610 Magnolia 15 years ago it was just me writing the menus, going to the copier, fixing the plumbing, and buying flowers. Now, everything feels so much more collaborative and more of a group effort, and that’s really nice. When I have strong partners, I can focus on creative while they take care of other things.
And there’s your mentoring program: The Chef LEE (Let’s Empower Employment) Initiative. Can you tell us more about that?
We find young adults in the neighborhoods in Louisville who need jobs and are interested in food, but who could otherwise not afford cooking school. We interview them and give them a test, and if they pass that basic entry, we take them through an intensive 40-week program that trains them to be restaurant-ready professionals. There is no one specialty—everyone has to go through all aspects of the restaurant. They learn to be a server, a cook, answer phones, manage inventory and accounting—it’s really more of a small business/entrepreneur training program. We’re not saying you’re going to be a great chef at 40 weeks, but the participants will have 40 weeks of real restaurant experience and be able to decide if this is something they want to do for the next 10 years. If they do, we offer jobs and placement within our restaurant group and elsewhere.
Last year, one woman decided she wanted to go back to school for business, and even though she didn’t go into the restaurant industry, I consider that one of our biggest successes because a year prior to that she wasn’t even thinking about college. Success with the program is not about training super star chefs, it’s about taking 18- and 19-year-old kids who are otherwise unemployable and training them to become professionals. It’s not charity or a handout. These kids work really hard. And it’s a win for us because then we have a lot of great help. It’s a very collaborative program and we need each other.