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Edward Lee on the Music City Eats Festival, Saving Kentucky Bourbon and What Makes a Successful Festival

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The inaugural Music City Eats Festival, Sept. 21-22 in Nashville, is setting cooking demonstrations, panel discussions and, yes, sampling to live music. Because, you know, Nashville.

At the closest major food festival to Louisville, 610 Magnolia and MilkWood chef/owner Edward Lee will be joining chefs like Giada De Laurentiis, Michael Symon and Aarón Sánchez. Lee's demo will focus on how to eat your bourbon (apparently there's more to it than pouring it over ice from your Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine). Tickets are still available. The food festival also will host Petty Fest Nashville, a celebration of Tom Petty (and probably The Hearbreakers too), headlined by Kings of Leon.

Here, Lee talks about how to cook with bourbon, what makes a good food festival and what it'd take to host one on Louisville.

About the Music City Eats Festival, your demo there is called How to Eat Bourbon. What's that gonna entail?

You've seen products, the tagline is "eat your bourbon." We're kind of riffing off that. I'm going to start by kind of introducing Matt's [Jamie, owner of Bourbon Barrel Foods] products and then also just going into all of the different ways that bourbon flavors food. Whether it's cooking, obviously making desserts, bourbon balls, to using bourbon in vinaigrettes. It's just a demo on how to cook with bourbon.

And, also, I think the biggest questions that I get from people is what bourbon to use. So I have a whole theory on certain bourbons should be used for certain purposes and others for others. Just like when you cook with wine, you wouldn't cook with any wine. Same with bourbon. I think there is pretty great diversity of flavors whether you're using a four-year aged bourbon or a 12-year aged bourbon. And obviously the older bourbon is gonna be a lot more expensive so if you're using that you're going to use it very sparingly. There is great variation of bourbon so I think that there should also be great variation of how you use those bourbons. It's a primer on how to cook with certain types of bourbon.

What are some of the basic rules of how to cook with bourbon?

To me, the younger the bourbon, the notes aren't all developed. So cheaper bourbon, younger, you can use more, reduce it down and you're going to get a very one dimensional bourbon flavor. You're going to get your introductory notes of vanilla and your caramel notes. They don't really have that sort of mineral-y, hay, leather kind of note that develops just because it hasn't been bottle aged too long. For me those younger bourbons are perfect for desserts. You're going to mix it with sugar. You're going to reduce it down pretty hard so you're going to get that sort of simple, but it's going to pop you in the face. Anything that you mix with sugar you're going to mute the flavors anyway. So if you're making cheesecake, bourbon balls, bourbon cheesecake, caramel, all that stuff that is great for the younger bourbon.

To me it doesn't matter necessarily what kind of bourbon you use, it doesn't really matter because generally all bourbons are on the sweeter side anyway because of the corn. So, to me, it's all about the age. As you get older in bourbon, the more delicate, the more nuanced and the more savory notes develop. So it's just kind of a sliding scale. The older the bourbon you have, the more savory you want to get it. At the extreme end of the 12-year, the only thing you want to do with that is just like you would do with a fine wine or a cognac: use it to deglaze a pan, just to make a quick pan sauce. So let's say you got chicken livers. Take the chicken livers out, deglaze it with a little bourbon, soak up all those pan drippings, add a little butter, salt and pepper and you're done. And that's something where you're only using a few tablespoons of bourbon. So you're not using that much. And you don't want to use old expensive bourbon on desserts. You want to use it on a very savory dish.

Somewhere in the middle is where you kind of do your braising dishes, your soups, your things where you're going to use maybe a whole bottle of bourbon, but you're going to braise it for a long period of time. Things like brisket, pork belly. Throw it in some chicken stock, some bourbon and you're cooking the bourbon off for a long period of time, but you've still got enough smokey note in that braising liquid.

This is the inaugural Music City Eats Festival. You go to a lot of these food festivals. What does it take for one to be considered successful? What do you look for?

It has to be unique. It definitely has to be different. There are a ton of festivals now. The thing is why should I go here versus a festival in Atlanta, Aspen, South Beach. Obviously their big draw is music. I think it's kind of special that they would have music. It's not just a cover band that's playing, which is what happens at a lot of festivals. There are actually have been a lot of great ones here. So I think that, A, separates them.

It is a Southern food festival but it's not just Southern chefs, which some of the other Southern food festivals tend to focus solely on Southern chefs. But here you've got everyone, the guys from Animal in LA, obviously Jonathan Waxman of Barbuto in New York. And then you've got some eye candy, celebrity chefs like Giada. You're getting a nice mix. I think that it kind of reflects the culture of national food, because it is a Southern town. Because of the music industry in Nashville and there are just a ton of people in Nashville that are in Nashville because of the music industry. I think that it's kind of cool that they reflected that in the draw.

Do you think Louisville could pull off a high profile food festival?

Yes I do and I have been yelling at people for years to do it. My thing with Louisville is that the biggest draw that we have, right now it is the hottest thing on the planet, is bourbon. So I've always said that we need a bourbon festival in Louisville, but really nicely done, a world-class event. It's just there is a lot of power involved and a lot of people that are interested in it. But it's just connecting the people that have a lot of money but don't want to get involved in the nitty gritty and there are people who want to do it but don't have money. It's just getting a lot of people locally and getting them to...it takes a lot of money. It takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of manpower. It's not something that you just do.

For a bourbon festival to be in Louisville, what do you think the festival itself should have?

Well I've got a million ideas. Again, it has to be unique and I think it has to tell the story of bourbon. Everyone knows what bourbon is, but very few people actually know the story of bourbon. Do they know the history?

I have been on at least a dozen bourbon tours because all my friends come from New York and they all want to go on a distillery tour. I take them and every time I go, I go to the same one and I see the same film and every time I go I learn something new. I'm like "I didn't know that. That's pretty interesting." There's so much to learn. I think making bourbon is as complex, if not more so, than making wine. To me that involves this higher education.

Bourbon is not just a drink, it's a culture. You have that culture here in Kentucky. It's an important story for two reasons. A, it's popular, it's hot right now. But two, also, I think that it's very important to preserve the history. Because bourbon, unlike champagne or cognac, can be made anywhere in the United States. So one of the things that I've noticed in my book tours as I'm wrapping up, I've been to 22 cities in the past two months. I've seen a lot of cities and every city I go to I go to the bars and I look at the bourbon list and all that stuff. And there is bourbon pretty much being made in 20 to 25 states now. In Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Colorado, San Francisco, and they're all horrible. I mean they're not bourbon. Well legally they are because they follow the laws of what bourbon is. There are lot of people putting a lot of money into bourbon outside of Kentucky.

People say "Oh that's ridiculous. People are never going to drink Texas bourbon, bourbon from Texas." And I disagree I think that there is a lot of vested interest in promoting bourbons from other places because they make it faster, cheaper and of less quality and they can make a lot more money out of it. So I think that a bourbon festival is important in that it would kind of preserve and teach and understand that historically that bourbon, although it can be made anywhere in the country, historically shouldn't and the best ones did come from Kentucky and here's why. Because we do this mapping, generations of knowledge and history and tradition passed down. I think it's important as an industry to have a very, very high profile event that says "Hey, listen. Bourbon is Kentucky." Culturally, traditionally, bourbon is Kentucky." And similarly if someone gives you champagne from Australia I'll drink it, but it's not real champagne.

You mentioned the book tour. How's the experience been so far with that?

It's been great. It's been very interesting...it's grueling. Most days I'm up at 4:30-5 a.m. to catch a plane, back to back to back. Going from LA one day to Seattle the next is a huge culture shock. But it's really interesting what commonalities people have in what we call America I guess. Going from New Orleans to St. Louis to Raleigh, Durham to LA you just realize how vastly different this country is, from region to region. I want to see the best regional food restaurant in this city and it's exciting. You see stuff that I don't think you would see a couple of years ago. Restaurants are really celebrating, chefs are really celebrating their regional cuisine.
·All Edward Lee Coverage [~ELOU~]

[Photo: Courtesy Facebook/Music City Eats Festival]