“Obviously the convenient answer to this question is, I’m moving to D.C. because of business,” Lee says during a phone interview. “Because I see a great business opportunity and I see a great opportunity to . . .”
The chef trails off, momentarily lost in thought.
“Selfishly,” he adds, “I want to compete in a bigger market.”
Lee seems to be hyper-aware that his move could generate fear and loathing among the Louisville faithful, who have supported his pioneering efforts to search for the intersections between Southern cooking and his own Korean heritage. Lee’s pursuit of the foodways in and around Louisville has led to some particularly inventive cooking, a seamless blend of Asian and Southern ingredients in such mash-ups as togarashi cheesecake, collards and kimchi, pickled garlic with molasses soy sauce and other dishes. (For a quick introduction to Lee’s work, check out his cookbook, “Smoke & Pickles,” a deeply felt and researched tome on his hybrid style.)
The chef’s identity, in other words, has been shaped, influenced and hopelessly intertwined with Louisville and the South. It’s not something that he can just walk away from, even with an apparent upgrade to the District, with its Michelin Guide, its many celebrity chefs and its highflying dining scene.
“I’m not leaving Louisville. We have a beautiful home. I’ve got three restaurants here,” says Lee, whose third establishment, the burger-and-bourbon Whiskey Dry, is expected to open soon. “We’ll be back. My daughter’s starting horseback riding lessons in the spring. We’re going to keep our identity here, and we’re going to keep our home and everything.”
But at the same time, the chef can’t ignore the opportunities that await him in the D.C. area, where he and Knead Hospitality + Design opened Succotash at National Harbor in 2015, the first restaurant that Lee opened outside of Louisville. A second Succotash, a larger and grander version located in the historic Equitable Bank Building in Penn Quarter, is expected to open in June or July.
“I see D.C. I see where it’s going. I see the players there,” Lee says. “I think it’s in any ambitious person’s wheelhouse to go, ‘I want to play in the sandbox with the big boys.’ ”
Michael Reginbogin and Jason Berry, co-founders of Knead Hospitality, say they exerted no influence on Lee’s decision to move to Washington, even if the chef now has a more vested interest in the second location of Succotash. Reginbogin and Berry say they can’t talk specifically about Lee’s stake in the company, but they note he will continue to hold the position of “culinary director” while adding more day-to-day cooking duties to his responsibilities.
“Edward is very well known, and he brings a lot of years of experience and talent,” says Reginbogin. “We want the guy who is the face of the company to be in the restaurant.”
Lee has already introduced a taste of Louisville to Washington. Since Succotash opened and earned a two-star review, Lee has been developing a distribution network for some of his favorite Louisville products, which he uses in the dishes at National Harbor.
“We get all our sorghum from here,” says Lee, while preparing for the Valentine’s Day crush at 610 Magnolia, where Kevin Ashworth is now executive chef. “All our molasses [are] from here. Our grits. Some of the other grains too. Country hams, we get from here.”
You know that we have country hams in Virginia, too, right?
“That’s part of my bias, right?” Lee concedes with a laugh. But at the same time, the chef is “excited to see the reverse happen,” he says. “As I spend more time in D.C., I’m positive I will be influenced by things in that area and then bring that back to Kentucky.”
Lee says Washington, with its many international influences, will prepare him for the next chapter in his career.
“I don’t think that my journey’s over. I don’t think I want to be known as that guy that put kimchi and collards together and that’s it,” Lee says. “I think there’s more out there. I think there’s more to discover and more to do. And to me, D.C. is a perfect place for that. It is so international. It is so on the cutting edge.”