Brooklyn-born Edward Lee is known for serving unconventional dishes. At his restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Louisville, Ky., you’ll find items inspired by flavors from his Korean heritage and traditional fare of the American South, like octopus bacon.
But to the self-trained chef who has starred in The Mind of a Chef and Fermented, food goes beyond ingredients. “To care about food is to care about people,” he explains. “Eating puts me on a road to asking questions.”
Lee’s memoir, Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine, outlines what he discovered while tasting Peruvian dishes in Paterson, N.J.; German favorites in Milwaukee, Wis.; and Lebanese delicacies and contraband whiskey in the delta of Clarksdale, Miss.
The seven-time James Beard Award nominee discovered a unique culinary fusion — a mingling of new flavors and ingredients that challenge notions of authenticity and tradition. “The story of American food is one of transformation,” he writes.
His journey offered many unexpected tastes. But a visit to Dearborn, Mich. — home to one of America’s largest Muslim communities — resulted in the opposite: an “accidental” fast.
Joining the communitywide ritual during Ramadan taught Lee what it’s like to eat by not eating. It also brought empathy and a deeper understanding. “I feel I’ve learned more about being human from attempting to fast,” he notes.
Experience Life | How did you choose the 16 towns highlighted in the book?
Edward Lee | I had a list of places that I’d visited before and some, like Lowell, Mass., that I knew had a large Cambodian community residing there, but had never visited.
What I found interesting was that every time I told someone about what I was doing, people had a recommendation for me. They’d say, “If you’re interested in immigrant groups and food, you gotta go here and try this!”
That was encouraging because it proved what I felt, which is that we all know these food communities exist everywhere; they’re just not written about on a mainstream level.
But every person living in a town or a city in America knows where there’s a really cool Mexican neighborhood where you get the best tacos or a Vietnamese neighborhood where you get the best pho. This diversity happens because of immigrants and cultures colliding.
EL | What is the relationship between food and stories?
EL | Food often gets put under a microscope. We…