“The architecture of a burger is very complex.”
This one statement from Chef Edward Lee encapsulates what makes him one of the premiere chefs in the region.
It also explains why, on Thursday, it was announced that Lee — the culinary mastermind behind 610 Magnolia, Milkwood and the upcoming burger bar, Whiskey Dry (hence the comment on the involved construction of the perfect burger) — is receiving his fifth James Beard Award nomination as Best Chef: Southeast.
To Lee, every dish he puts in front of diners is treated as being equally serious, from delicately grilled kabayaki eel with green apple and ginger zest to “just your regular, standard cheeseburger.”
To celebrate his nomination (seriously, this is a big deal — the James Beard awards are like the Oscars of food), I sat down with Lee to chat about how he has maintained his momentum as a nationally-acclaimed chef, two of his culinary dreams that have recently come true, and yes, his thoughts on putting together the ideal burger.
‘I know that works, but we’re still going to change it’
Lee says the key to his consistent success is actually in the spirit of steady innovation that guides his restaurant concepts.
“After 14 years (working at 610 Magnolia), we know what works,” Lee says. “So it takes a real effort to say, ‘yeah I know that works, but we are still going to change it.’ And we are proud of the fact that there isn’t a single thing on the menu that, you know, we have on there from three years ago.”
Lee says this also requires a certain level of personal awareness.
“I just think it is important to constantly look at what we’re doing, but also look at what is going on in the greater food world around us,” he says. “I think the most important thing is to never rest on our laurels and to never believe that we are ‘good enough.’”
Lee’s Food Dreams
While Julia Child believed in “red meat and gin,” Lee has spent the past few years thinking about greenhouses and whiskey.
This past winter, 610 added a 600 square-foot greenhouse from which the kitchen staff are sourcing produce for the restaurant’s weekly specials.
“It sounds maybe a little cliche, but I really love what I do,” Lee says. “And so, to me, the idea of installing a greenhouse is something that I have dreamt about forever, and we finally had the money to do it. That’s going to change the way our menu looks and how we approach food for the next few years.”
Then comes Whiskey Dry, which is set to open at Fourth Street Live in late April or early May.
“For me, the idea of owning a whiskey bar is like another dream,” Lee says. “I love whiskey and I’m very fascinated by the narrative of whiskey.”
He clarifies that he’s not just talking about bourbon, though that is the drink that got him into other varieties of the spirit. Lee wants his shelves stocked with a global selection of whiskies.
“Whether its Canadian whisky or Irish whisky or Japanese whisky, and Scotch, obviously,” Lee says. “And then the other part of it is this huge movement of American craft single-malts, which is basically the American version of Scotch.”
But really, back to that ‘complex burger’ thing
At Whiskey Dry, Lee will serve a variety of burgers, a menu choice that has taken an oddly cerebral turn. He’s spent months researching everything from the origin of burger buns to the history of ketchup.
“Everyone knows you put ketchup on a burger,” Lee says. “But then you start researching, what is ketchup? Most people probably don’t know the origin of ketchup comes from China, and so like the original ketchup was made from like fish sauce and mushrooms.”
You can expect to see that pop up on the menu. Rumor also has it that Lee has a carrot ketchup in the works. He says this level of ingredient-by-ingredient dissection is part of his food philosophy: He doesn’t take anything at face value.
“For example, if you really get down to it, a steak is very simple,” Lee says. “You’ve got a piece of meat and you got some salt and pepper on it and you got a side and veg. A burger, it’s all layered on top of each other so i’s a very complex thing when it all has to work together in one bite.”