Lee is no stranger to the small screen, having made appearances in both previous seasons of “The Mind of a Chef,” defeated an Iron Chef on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” and competed on season nine (Texas) of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”
MapQuest caught up with the James Beard Award finalist, restaurateur and cookbook author in his adopted city of Louisville, Kentucky, where he owns and operates 610 Magnolia, The Wine Studio and MilkWood. Lee chatted about what we can expect from the season three of "The Mind of a Chef," his favorite vacation destinations and why he sometimes travels without an itinerary.
What can you tell us about “The Mind of a Chef”?
I don’t want to reveal too much, but we’re going to start out in New York. I’ll be in Brooklyn and the places I grew up. There’s a lot of meaning there for me because I came from New York and it’s still very close to me. Then we follow the path of where I’ve been, so it’s a lot of Southern stuff—obviously a lot of Kentucky. We go to Houston to cook with a few chefs there for various reasons that will hopefully make sense when this show comes out. There’s a specific reason I wanted to go to Houston. We take a trip to Argentina, where we cook with Francis Mallmann.
One of the things I’m fascinated by is cooking with smoke and cooking with fire. There are certain cultures around the world where cooking with coals or fire is very integral to the identity of their national cuisine. One of them, interestingly enough, is Korean food, where the entire identity is built with smoke around it. The whole tradition of American BBQ is built on this technique of cooking with smoke. One of the other ones is Argentinian food. The idea of Argentinian food without open-fire cooking is impossible. At some point we were all cavemen cooking stuff over an open fire, but as certain cultures and certain heritages evolved, some have lost it completely, and some have really integrated it into their national identity. To me, that was the really fascinating thing to investigate.
How does filming a show like this compare to doing “Top Chef”?
It’s night and day, really. I would say the biggest difference is creative control. Shows like “Top Chef” have a very set format. They’re plugging different people into that. You’re just a contestant on a show. You’re not bringing anything of your own sort of creativity to it, other than in your cooking. This show, well, it’s PBS, so it is much more thoughtful and investigative. There are no sound bites. You have the time to conjure things. It’s looking to accomplish something really different. It really does sort of try to peel back some layers into the psyche of a chef. What is it that we as chefs do? How do we arrive at our decisions? How do we come up with our creations? How is that creativity balanced with all of the other things that we do? There’s a lot of meat there.
Would you say travel influences you as a chef?
Anywhere you travel, you’re going to be influenced by it, so obviously as a chef, too. I don’t travel anywhere where I’m not excited about the food. That’s important to me. Even when I vacation with my family, I go to places where I know there will be good food. I tend to travel more in the southern United States and Asia. It’s not specific or exclusive to that, but it does tend to inform my cooking and what I do. In the past three years I’ve been to Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia and Hong Kong. It’s such an education every time I go to learn what’s going on in the food world over there.
Whenever I have an opportunity to go to a tiny, small town in the American South and see some barbecue joint, I will. Then, there are cities like New Orleans that I am constantly drawn back to because the culture there is just so diverse and I want to keep learning. Those are the things that sort of motivate me in my travels. That’s what chefs do when we travel. We don’t go to museums. We go to restaurants and we see chefs and purveyors and farms. Those are our museums. It’s a really interesting way to travel.
What are some other cities that constantly draw you back?
I find that cities like Charleston are so culinarily rich and historical. You can go back every summer and there’s always something new to discover. I love a small city like Birmingham. It almost hasn’t been quite discovered yet. There’s a beauty and a charm to that. Obviously, New York is a city that is a culinary mecca, so we are always trying to go there. But, you know, I love just driving, just getting in my car and driving and finding new places. I’m about to take a road trip through eastern Kentucky and Virginia without even a destination in mind. I just know there are a couple of people along the way who are doing some incredible things with food. You know, as we get older, I love traveling without an itinerary, just letting things happen.
What destinations would you love to visit but haven’t been to yet?
I don’t travel in Europe as much. My wife’s family is from the Alsace region on the Germany-France border. We just had a child together, so we want to travel through and have her see what it’s like. We think that’s important.
I love places that are in-between, the places between two places. I find those to be the most fascinating. They border two different cultures, and they’re not distinctly one or the other. Places like the Basque Country in Spain. I think Alsace is another one of those places. I think northern Thailand is another one of those places. Louisville is, too. It’s one of those cities that is technically, geographically Southern, and there are aspects of it that are very Southern. Then there are things that are very Midwestern, and some parts that are very old Germanic.
What advice can you give for someone looking to find a good place to eat when they’re visiting a new place?
In this day and age of the Internet and Yelp and all this stuff, you’d think it’s very easy to find great food. It is, but you still need to pull back some layers to really get to the true identity of the city in terms of its restaurants. It’s not always right there in front of your face. It takes effort. You have to be discerning. Websites will tell you, "These are the 10 best restaurants to eat at." They may be just the 10 most popular ones. You have to do more research. I think that part of it is fun. You have to go on a couple different websites, or go and ask the locals. You have to investigate.
The thing I love about travel is there is always that undiscovered spot. Everything might be online, everything might be recorded. But in every city I go to, there is still a surprise that makes me say, "Wow. This wasn’t in any guide but the food is great." I love that. That’s the whole reason why we travel.
That goes back to traveling without an itinerary.
You have to remember that beauty is not always in the destination, it’s also in the journey. So, when I’m in San Francisco and I’m walking to a restaurant that I know I’m going to, I always keep my eyes peeled. I may find another restaurant along the way. I may go in to grab a quick bite just to see how it is, and then still have dinner at the other place. I think that’s the beauty of travel. We always plan a trip, and there’s usually work involved, but the most memorable things about the journey are always those unexpected findings. I’m always very confident that wherever I go, I will find that. The point is to keep your eyes open and peeled to that discovery.