Edward Lee, who recently penned his first book — “Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen” — and who has spent a decade cooking in Louisville, Kentucky, doesn’t like to use the term “fusion cuisine” when talking about his food.
“[The term] has a connotation that is very historical,” he said at a dinner at the downtown culinary salon City Grit celebrating the release of the cookbook. “And it isn’t accurate because a lot of what we’re cooking and a lot of what young chefs are cooking are being influenced by our surroundings.”
Instead, he likes to call it a “cuisine of inclusion,” meaning he can put anything he wants in his cooking.
“It could be Mediterranean [influences], it could be African or it could be Brazilian, as long as it makes sense and is applicable,” he said.
Lee’s cuisine is truly a medley of his personal experiences — “an intersection … of my memories and my history,” as he calls it — that incorporates both his Korean background and the landscape of southern cuisine he is currently immersed in.
In 2002, he went to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby to help out at local restaurant 610 Magnolia, an experience that was critical in shaping his attitudes toward his own cooking.
“We visited a lot of farms, and you know, as a young chef coming from New York City, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to visit farms,” he said. “Being down there, I got to really connect with farmers and the landscape. It was very important because I wanted to get to a different level of ‘farm to table,’ [more than that of] just saying it. For me it was a very nice way to go to a place where you had a connection to the land.”
At the time he was at Clay, his restaurant in New York City on Mott Street, where he served newfangled Korean cuisine for five years before he discovered Louisville.
“To me [Clay] felt incomplete and I was looking for something more,” he said. “Louisville was sort of my way to complete the picture of the cuisine I wanted to make.”
He also thinks that people are reverting to a certain philosophy about food that originated in the south many years ago.
“Southern cuisine has captured the imagination of the whole nation,” he said. “There’s something about it that’s very comforting, that’s very warm.”
Yet he maintains that his objective is to get creative with southern food, not to recreate it. To him, it is “an idea, a way of thinking, a perspective.”
True to this concept, his cookbook showcases many invigorating dishes, such as lime beef salad with mint and sliced mango; kabocha squash dumplings; rice bowl with chicken, orange, peanuts and miso rémoulade and curry pork pies with bacon, ground pork and ginger, all of which were served on Friday's dinner.