For burgeoning celebrity chef Edward Lee of Louisville, Kentucky, the concept of fusion food is bogus.
“In general, the word ‘fusion’ is an outdated word that’s really a misunderstanding of the origin,” he says. “All food is fusion food; all food crosses cultures and boundaries. To insinuate that some food is fusion and other food isn’t—I mean, what food is fully formed of its own without any cultural influences? That doesn’t exist.”
Lee is a Brooklyn-raised Korean-American forging a career in the American South. He owns 610 Magnolia, MilkWood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, Kentucky, and is Culinary Director of Succotash, a newly opened restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter. He is also the co-host of Gordon Ramsay’s newest cooking show Culinary Genius on Fox. On top of all that, this chef is constantly embracing and engaging in cultural exchange.
“I don’t mix cultures through food intentionally or with any reason behind it, it’s just natural for me,” he says. “I remember when I worked at this French restaurant in New York when I was a kid, we’d make all this traditional French food, but everyone working in the kitchen was from different cultures. So we’d make French food [for work], and then for staff meals we’d make our own food, which was always, like, Indian or Thai or Korean food, and I just remember thinking, like, this is what I love about America.”
“When I found southern food, it just felt like it completed me. It was that other half that I was looking for.”
As culinary host of PBS’s Mind of a Chef season three, Lee invited audiences into the evolution of his personal and professional style in the kitchen; a style that is best illustrated in the episode titled “Latitude.” The chef—whose expressive, southern, cooking is influenced heavily by Korean flavors—is a keen observer of related culinary styles between seemingly disconnected parts of the world, due to their similar latitudes on a map. Not many people are inclined to connect two disparate locations like Louisville, Kentucky and Seoul, Korea for any reason, perhaps least of all culinarily. But Chef Lee is different.
Chief among the connections that he’s observed between the two locales is the structure of a typical meal in either place. According to Lee, traditional meals in Kentucky and Korea will center around a large meat protein accompanied by a variety of sides: in the American South, cornbread and collard greens are staples, whereas in Korea, kimchi and rice are common accompaniments. “It’s the exact same meal with a different vocabulary,” Lee says. “The flavors for both, though distinct, tend to be bold. Both places like spices and pickles; there’s a lot of components that remind me of each other.” And it’s not just what people in each city are eating that’s similar—it’s how they eat it, too. “It’s like grazing food as opposed to coursed out meals,” he says. “You don’t have a salad followed by a main course, and a third. Everything is thrown on the table at one time. You just eat. And there are not too many cultures that do that, except the American South and a lot of Asian cultures.”
“When you borrow from another culture, you have to have the sensitivity and the respect to collaborate, to give credit where credit is due.”
The theory behind all of this suggests that vegetables and produce are familiar to residents of Louisville and Seoul because they’re grown under similar conditions within the same climate, due to their shared latitudes. Even before he’d made the connection on a map, Chef Lee was seeing similarities between the two cities as early as 2003, shortly after moving from Brooklyn to Kentucky.
“The more I ate southern food and the more I ate traditional things like fried chicken and collards, the more it reminded me of Korean food,” he says. “[The food culture] is very earthy, very direct, very hospitable, and it’s all about abundance. The connection was just natural—I never went into cooking thinking I would combine Korean and southern food. It was just a natural extension of things that are very close to me. It just flowed out of me, little by little, and it turns out people like it.”
As a chef in New York City, Lee always felt stifled, as though a key piece of his culinary identity was yet to be discovered. Cooking strictly singular cuisines felt “one-dimensional” for the chef, as if something were missing.
“When I found southern food, it just felt like it completed me,” he says. “It was that other half that I was looking for. To me, southern food, and Kentucky’s food, represents a broader thing; it’s not my childhood. It’s not my history, it’s not my traditions, it’s something that’s very representative of an American culture. But, I’ve now lived through it, too; I’ve spent 15 years traveling to every small town around the South and learning, so it’s really part of a lifestyle for me.”
In his cooking, Chef Lee is inspired by what he considers the spirit of America: a wealth of diverse, accessible cuisines. “What’s very special about this country as opposed to any other country that I’ve been to is that we have so many cultures and flavors right at our fingertips,” he says. “You can eat Indian food for lunch and have a southern pork roast for dinner, and then have a Korean breakfast the next day. Americans love to eat that way.”
Now is a complicated time to champion cultural blending, but the chef believes that there are two kinds of cooking: appropriative and collaborative. One is about taking, while the other is about sharing. “I can cook southern food because I give back,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m stealing anything from southern culture or black culture; people share recipes with me, and I share recipes with them. It’s a dialogue, it’s a conversation. Where I think it becomes unbalanced is when there is a sentiment that you’re stealing. When you borrow from another culture, you have to have the sensitivity and the respect to collaborate, to give credit where credit is due. It’s not even the stealing of the recipe that’s the problem; it’s more the issue of entitlement.”
“Food is incredibly powerful.”
Ultimately, Chef Lee believes that cultural collaboration, not appropriation, is essential to the future of cooking and human connection. “We all ‘steal’ recipes, we have to,” he says. “We’d never advance as a culinary culture if we didn’t. All we’ve ever done throughout human history is cook another ethnic person’s food. In fact, we need more of one kind of person cooking another person’s food in this world, not less. I want a French person cooking Thai food, and I want a Thai person cooking French food. As chefs, we’re trained to take from those around us. I don’t have a single original recipe in my head—all we do is borrow.”
His inclusive and eclectic approach to cooking makes for a borderless cuisine that comes more from his soul and less from any one particular spot on a map. It’s his open-minded philosophy that allows Lee to appreciate the true political power of food, a tool of multicultural expression. “I really do believe that, with all the attention food gets right now, there’s a bigger thing at work there,” he says. “If you can sit around a dinner table and eat the foods of other cultures, it’s a window into new knowledge. What do you do when you first travel to another country? You go to a restaurant. Or at least I do. And that’s how you learn. I certainly learned a lot about southern culture and southern people through the food, and I continue to do so, because food is incredibly powerful. It’s exciting for me to be able to live other cultures through food.”