6 Questions With a James Beard-Nominated Chef

Louisville is no stranger to receiving awards for the city’s culinary scene. From international stardom — it’s one of the top 15 cities in the world for food — to local fame — the bourbon capital also has one of the best local food scenes in the US — it’s clear that foodies love Louisville. And that’s great news for convention attendees who are hungry to discover the born-in-Louisville dishes that have put the city on the map. For more on what your attendees can savor in Louisville, we caught up with Edward Lee, a James Beard Award-nominated chef and best-selling author of “Smoke & Pickles”, who is one of the stars elevating the city’s reputation as the ultimate place to eat and drink.

PCMA: You have two restaurants in Louisville — 610 Magnolia (610magnolia.com), your fine dining flagship, and MilkWood (milkwoodrestaurant.com), which is Southern with an Asian twist. Is there a third on the way?

Lee: Yes, Whiskey Dry, a Whiskey bar serving made-from-scratch burgers [opening in April 2017]. The whole idea is to elevate the burger to a chef-driven concept. We’re going to use fresh, local ingredients, make the buns from scratch.

We want to have a lot of fun with it and get people to explore the idea of pairing Whiskey with burgers. Kentucky is the home of bourbon, so we wanted to create not just a burger bar but tell the entire story of Whiskey and its progression as a craft spirit. We’ll focus on American [Whiskeys], but have a great international list as well.

On weekends, we’ll probably be one of the only places downtown serving gourmet burgers late into the evening. We have a dining room, a large bar area, and a private room, and we’ll make it available to groups. [Editor’s note: Whiskey Dry will be located in Fourth Street Live!, a dining and entertainment district around the corner from the Kentucky International Convention Center. The center is currently undergoing a renovation and expansion due for completion in 2018].

PCMA: What’s unique about Louisville? Why should people come here?

Lee: What makes Louisville so special is that it doesn’t have just one identity. It has many different identities, but all encapsulated in a small square footage.

You have this very compact city and it really can change with what you want it to be. You can have breakfast in a cute little spot that makes you feel like you’re in Southern home, you can have lunch in a great Indian restaurant that makes you feel like you’re in a great diverse population, and you can have dinner in a sophisticated, modern restaurant and you feel like you’re in a big city. And you can do almost all of that within walking distance. That’s something that not a lot of cities do, especially not a lot of Southern cities.

You have great immigrant culture here as well. Because it’s a historic trading route on the river, Louisville has always been a progressive and forward-thinking city, and I think that vibe continues on today.

PCMA: You moved to Louisville from New York City, what made you fall in love with it? Why did you choose to put roots down here?

Lee: When I came here 15 years ago, I saw in Louisville this potential for a city that was going to grow, and not just grow with one identity but grow with multiple identities. To me, that is what makes a city interesting and vibrant. There are many layers here; there is not just one culture. Louisville is not necessarily a Southern city. It’s on the northern edge of the American South; it has a lot of influences from Appalachia as well as the Pennsylvania Dutch. We’re closer to Cincinnati than we are to Nashville. You have a cool bandwidth of culture that surrounds us on all sides.

Besides that, to me the biggest contrast is this idea of city life verses country life. There aren’t many cities where you can be in the center of downtown in this cool, cosmopolitan city, and then take a 20-minute drive in one direction and be in absolute nature. It is a small city, but because it’s a small city you’re never very far away from what you want. I really enjoy that aspect of living here.

PCMA: Where do you like to eat in Louisville?

Lee: Holy Grale (holygralelouisville.com), it’s one of my favorite places to go. They were on the cutting edge of this craft beer movement and gastronomic pub food. They serve some of the best food in Louisville. If you’re a bourbon drinker, you have to check out Silver Dollar (whiskeybythedrink.com). Check out Decca (deccarestaurant.com), which fuses the East Coast and West Coast with the Midwest mentality very nicely. For fried chicken, Indi’s in the West End. It’s a homegrown place. It’s supremely the best [fried chicken] in Louisville.

PCMA: When it comes to food in Louisville, what dish epitomizes the city?

Lee: To me, it’s a bit of controversy because everyone associates Louisville with the Hot Brown (brownhotel.com/dining-hot-brown). And the Hot Brown is an incredibly delicious thing to eat. You go to the Brown Hotel (brownhotel.com), and you order it, and you sit there and you look at it and it’s a heaping mess of calories. And you say, “I could never possibly finish this.”

And then you end up finishing it and you can’t do anything for the rest of the day except just lie there and digest. I’ve been here 15 years and I’ve eaten it twice. About once every seven years is the maximum I can handle because it takes me seven years to digest.

[Laughing] I do love it, it’s historic, it’s a wonderful dish,  — but I tell tourists, ‘just be ready not to eat for the rest of the day.’ It’s punishing to eat one of those things. But it really depends on the person. For people who want to try more modern things, I will generally tell them, ‘hey you’re not missing anything.’ It’s bacon, fat, and cheese. It’s delicious, but don’t worry about it.

PCMA: What’s interesting about Louisville right now?

Lee: You’re seeing this transformation where we’re creating new traditions right now — an entirely new definition of what is Louisville, what is Kentucky, for the next generation. It’s literally happening right now. Whenever you have that change, there are always people for it and against it, and there are great debates about food in this town.

If you ask me, I would say, ‘don’t go eat a Hot Brown,’ and people will argue with me and disagree with me about it, but that’s the great debate and I love that it’s happening right now. I’m saying, there are other things to eat that are just as good. To me, fried chicken is emblematic of Louisville. We have great fried chicken joints. That’s what I go for. Mint Juleps and Hot Browns? Eh, I can take them or leave them. Ask anyone who lives in Louisville — they drink a Mint Julep once a year right before the Kentucky Derby.

An Expansion on the Ohio River

When attendees arrive in Louisville in 2018, they’ll surely discover even more dining destinations, and they will also have a chance to see a bigger and better Kentucky International Convention Center. Check out the latest updates on the venue’s expansion HERE. For more information on Louisville, visit gotolouisville.com 

This article is brought to you by Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau

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