While not officially released until May 1, tonight at 7 p.m., Edward Lee will sign copies of Smoke & Pickles at Carmichael's Bookstore's Frankfort Avenue location. Eater National's First Look at the book complimented Lee's "strong voice." The after party will be Lee's MilkWood. "There will be bourbon," Lee said.
Earlier this week, Lee spoke with Eater Louisville by phone for about half an hour.
On page 73 you mentioned adapting to Louisville and specifically learning "to ask people how they are doing and really mean it. I waved at strangers." What other things have you picked up since living here?
Well, a number of things. I have learned to curse less. I learned that people can be very close to you without being friends necessarily. People are very curious about your business and it's a close-knit town. I wouldn't really call people friends but they actually curious and they want to help and they're giving. Coming from a bigger city, people are very private in big cities. It's all about privacy and you're very guarded. In New York, I remember you don't really tell people where you live. "I live on 27th Street," that's all you need to know. Here, you're just very open about information. It's very funny how close you can get to people very quickly. It's a good thing. It can be a little bit annoying because people do get up in your business but it really comes from a very generous place. It's a very close-knit kind of place It's a very different thing.
Is there anything about Louisville that you still haven't adjusted to?
I like basketball games, but I don't think I can ever wear a red sweatshirt and a Cardinal coozie. It was fun with this last championship. I was out watching the games for most of the last four games of the Final Four. It was exciting, this camaraderie was great, but it was hard. I never grew up with that. We had sports in New York, but it never took over the whole city. Just walking around and seeing a sea of in red is a just a weird thing for me.
I totally go with you on that one. To the point I'm afraid to tell people I really don't care about basketball. If they ask, "Do you like Kentucky or Louisville?" I claim neutrality and people will buy me a beer trying to convince me which one to root for.
When I first got into town, I remember someone coming to me at the restaurant saying,"Hey, I've got extra tickets for a game. Do you want to go? " And I actually was dumb enough to ask them, "Is this football or basketball?" They just looked at me like I was from outer space. Now I'm at the point where I do know the difference between basketball and football season. That's a hard thing. There's not a lot that difficult about Louisville. The only other thing is getting in my car and driving everyday. I'm so used to a walking culture and that's part of why I enjoy living in the Highlands. We do actually go for walks quite bit, my wife and I, just to get that city feel.
You mentioned your gyro fix and going in depth [on page 12] on lamb. Where in Louisville do you go to address that?
Grape Leaf has a pretty good gyro. There are not a lot of places. You know what's good is Shiraz. I really like what they're doing.
For a novice cook, what recipe would your suggest starting with?
The whole roast chicken with the stuffed potatoes. It's literally, a kid could do it, it's so easy. It's a pretty cool result. We tested all of the recipes in a home kitchen, so they're all very feasible. We put a lot of effort into the instructions. So I'm telling people if you actually read through them and try follow them exactly. Which I know is kind of an odd thing to ask. But if you do it, they do all work.
The layout of the book is pretty interesting. How involved were you in the book design? It's a cool-looking book. It's definitely a long way from The Joy of Cooking.
I was very involved to the point where there was a lot dialogue between the publisher and I. I didn't say, "I want this font" or "I want it to look this way." We spent a lot of time just having a dialogue about the philosophy. I told the publisher that I'm not a design guy or a typesetter or a graphic designer, and I don't want to do that. But what I want is something that is fresh. I'm not going to change the face of cookbooks. I want something that is very individual. I want something that reflects on me.
I told them, one of the biggest things about cookbooks that I find insincere is that you get these brilliant cooks who are stunning personalities and, for good or bad, they're wild or they curse a lot and they're brilliant. And then they put out a cookbook and the publisher white washes them over and turns them into this perfect human being. I told my publisher, I really want this to be a personal journey and a personal story and part of that is that, as a person, I'm flawed. I have made lots of mistakes in my life and I'm not perfect and I still make mistakes every day and I learn from them. I want to show my flaws as well as my ambitions and dreams and hopes, whatever. It's a part of what made us have the edginess, or the uneven paper, or even some of the photographs we picked, I was like that photograph of that dish looks almost too perfect. We tried not to mess with the plate designs and just put it on the plate. I really enjoyed working with the photographer. I said, "We're not going to plate this thing and look at it 10 different ways and move these forks. We're going to do it, put it on a plate and just shoot it and let's move on. It was a really rapid-fire kind of thing. We just wanted to show, I hate to use the word "real" because we did want to put a lot of effort into how it was going to look. But there weren't too many filters going on. So the publishers came back with that design sort of based on the philosophical talk that we had, and I thought that was really nice.
Do you have any more literary plans? These anecdotes that you kick off each chapter with are pretty engaging.
That's something that's up to the publishing world. I was a lit major in college. I had some aspirations of being a writer when I was younger. I'll be honest, I tried to write some fiction and I was terrible at it. It was very lonely. When you're in your early twenties sitting in a room by yourself and typing, it was really frustrating and I didn't enjoy it. I wanted the image of being a writer, but I really didn't enjoy it. I'm sort of a social person and being in a kitchen at that time for me was the right thing. I loved being around people and being sociable and cooking and laughing. But I'm a different person and I really enjoyed being in a quiet room and writing those anecdotes. It was very scary for me. I cook for a living and I've done it for so long, I'm kind of confident in what I do in the kitchen. Once in a while you get someone who complains or just doesn't get it, and will say "this dish sucks." I have a thick skin for that or I can adjust. You hear something professionally, things blow off of you very quickly. The writing part was very frightening for me because I'm not a professional writer. When I was writing the passages I never shared them with anyone but my editor. My wife didn't even read them. I was just going back and forth with my editor. So it was a very private almost conversation. I'd show her and we'd go back and forth a couple of times. It was a very quiet thing with me on my laptop and her through emails. About a couple months ago, I realized when I first saw the galley, I was like "Holy shit, this is actually going out to the world. I don't know if I want to show this. She was like, "It's too late. You can't take it back." One of the things I told her was, "What if someone comes up to me and says, 'You're a shitty writer,' it's really going to hurt me. If someone comes up and says, 'You're shitty cook,' you know, I can say, 'I've been doing this for 20 years, I think I know what I'm doing.'" It was kind of nerve racking, I've been on pins and needles. And sometimes those people can be very brutal online. You put yourself out there and sooner or later someone is going to say something. But for the most part, most of the people have been very positive about it. It kind of encourages me. So I don't know. We'll see what happens.
Are you actively checking reviews? Do you have a Google Alert set up?
I don't. The publisher does. I tend not to. I kind of take the same approach: I never have ever looked at a restaurant review. I don't think for all the years I've been cooking, I don't think I've ever read through an entire restaurant or cooking review. I hear from other people, I skim through it, or have them summarize it for me. So out of habit I'll keep the same process with this. My publisher tracks it very carefully. So far, people are a little bit nicer with writing cookbook reviews than they are with restaurants. People love to take jabs at restaurants. The people that review cookbooks seem to be a nicer breed. So far it's been good. But you know, cross your fingers.
One of the things that struck me when I moved here was just how the city seemed to have, I don't want to say an identity crisis, I think that's overselling it, but there's the "are we a Southern city or are we a Midwestern City?" I think LEO Weekly asks that every year in one of its polls. From the title of your book though [Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen], you've taken a stand on that. Did you put Southern in there just because it reflects the way your personal kitchen is? Or does that have anything to do with the geographic location of your kitchen? Do you think Louisville is a Southern city?
I think Louisville can be a Southern city. What I really like about Louisville, which is very different from Birmingham or New Orleans or even an Atlanta, is to me, Louisville is a border town. You get a little bit of that edge that comes from the south and then you get the Midwestern. And you do get a lot that Quaker-Amish mentality that sort of bursts in from the East too. You do have a very strong German presence from Indiana that's still pervasive here. Like my wife is as German-Catholic as they get, she's not culturally but her heritage is. If you meet her and you talk to her and after half an hour you'll say like, "Holy crap. She folds her clothes in 90-degree angles and they have to be perfectly stacked." I'm like you're so German it's ridiculous. Your car has to be perfectly washed and cleaned at all times. I think to the extent that they can be in this region, Louisville is very progressive and very much a melting pot of the regional sorts of influences.
I think historically, if you read some of the history of Louisville and how people integrate here, I think it makes this city very tolerant. And not in the grandiose [way]. But historically it's been use to just accepting different cultures into its sort of melting pot of its own kind. For me to come down here, I don't know if I could have done the same thing in a city like Birmingham or in a city like Charleston or even a place like Nashville. Those other cities are so fully formed, so complete. Here it's kind of like, "You want to play Midwestern?" There was a Jason Aldean concert last week. I saw 2,000 cowboys walking down the street. Where are these people coming from? You can be whatever you want to be here. It's kind of cheesy, but the whole thing of Possibility City almost kind of rings true here because you do have the different culture waves running through. If you want to wake up today and put on a rhinestone shirt and be a Southerner, no one is going to laugh at you or say, "Look, come on." You do that in Chicago, people look at you funny. No one is going to laugh at you here. But if you want to be a good Midwestern Catholic boy, no one is going to laugh at you either.
So there is a lot of that and I think, for me, from a culinary standpoint, I take my cues from ingredients and history and all that. For my culinary kitchen, yeah, I put Louisville on the Southern side of the Mason-Dixon line. There's more of a pull to the South. Not to disregard the North. But culinary wise, the South is so full of history and tradition and flavor. Even if it's shrimp and grits, which is everywhere. It really reflects a lot when I go to people's houses and eat. They may not cook Southern food all the time, but in the way they present, in the way they entertain, it's very southern. It's incredibly hospitable, passionate and it's very fun. It's not this we're going to a proper dinner, we have to put on proper clothing. It's very much rooted in Southern tradition when it comes to food. I put Louisville as a Southern culinary city. That's the funny thing, if you go to Birmingham and they go, "Louisville, that's not South." But if you go to Chicago, they go, "Oh, Louisville, that's the South." But I like that. I like that it has that multi layers of identity.
Do you think that's what's brought chefs from all over the country here? Looking at the top-tier restaurants, a lot of you guys are from elsewhere.
I do, and I think that's a good thing. I was just in Nashville. You compare Nashville. There's no one running a successful restaurant that's not from Nashville. You go to Chicago, I don't think there's really any of the top-tier chefs in Chicago running successful restaurants that are not good old Chicago boys or girls. Very similar in Cincinnati, Indianapolis. And then you have this little town in between where people opening restaurants are from Boston, Philly, New York. And, again, I think that speaks a lot to the culture, they're very accepting of outsiders. And the other thing is they're not afraid of outsiders, which is a huge thing. It's not like, "Oh, you're from there. We can't accept you here." It's like, "No. Come on in and let's see what you got."
And, if you think about it, it's not in many ways very different from New York. Who in New York is really from New York? Very few people. There's a handful of Upper West Side Jews that are from New York. Everyone else is just there by virtue of being there, immigration, whatever. It's the same thing. You think of all these New York restaurants. Most of these great New York restaurants are run by people not only from outside of New York, but outside the country. New York has Eric Ripert and you look at Daniel Boulud. All these people, whether they're from France, Italy. [Mario] Batali is from Seattle. And so you have that. And I think that's why you have this incredible restaurant scene in New York. It's so vibrant and full of influences form all over the place. I think you're seeing that now in Louisville. It's taken a bit of a long time, but now that's its sort of caught on fire, it's rich. You're seeing all these guys from all these different places coming in and going, "I want to put a little bit of this into it and I want to add a little of that into it.' It's a very colorful mix.
We're not even at Derby yet this year. You've already opened a new restaurant. You've released a cookbook. Did you frontload the year because you're expecting? What's next for you?
My plate's pretty full right now. And then my next big project is just to keep everything even keel for a little bit. I do have a baby on the way as well, so that's a whole other bag of worms I have to deal with. I'm quite content to keep everything up on even keel for a little bit.
When are you guys due?
We are due April 28.
So, like, less than a week.
Yeah, pretty much. I'm definitely freaking out over it.
I was in that mode too. Both of our kids came two weeks late, so I had an extra two weeks of freak-out mode. So I can totally relate to that. I was going to ask you about Derby plans, but guess yours are kind of preset. Do you have anything planned for that week?
No. It's work and taking care of hopefully a healthy newborn baby. I never really did much at Derby beside work. We usually would entertain people from out of town over the Derby weekend. But fortunately this weekend we will be entertaining a very important guess, that's coming from my wife's belly.
[Photos: "Excerpted from Smoke & Pickles by Edward Lee (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2013. Photographs by Grant Cornett."]