As a kid growing up in south Louisiana our little town celebrated a smoked pork sausage with a three-day fair, the Andouille Festival. We would grill it, fry it, put it on a stick, toss it into jambalaya and gumbo and even award a local beauty with the title of Miss Andouille Festival. Small towns across the country have done likewise for many generations, but we praised a product, not the cook. Our small-town festivals have morphed into sumptuous, silken celebrations with chefs, not sausage, as headliners. As our own Euphoria Food & Wine Festival approaches I reached out to Edward Lee, chef owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., and guest chef of Euphoria. Surely Edward had youthful foie gras fantasies that inspired his rise to chef stardom, correct? His sublime cooking has earned him celebrity chef accolades from every angle of the food press.
"I never dreamed of being a chef. Never. I grew up in Brooklyn and was going to get my degree in English, work in publishing, maybe become a literary agent, but my parents had another idea. To this day I'm not sure what possessed them but right before I started college they took their life savings and bought a diner, the Big Apple Diner, and within a year they had almost run it into the ground. So I dropped out of college and came home to help them and in no time I was this world-class hash slinger. I could memorize this long string of orders and really bang the food out yet I hated every minute of it. But it was sink or swim for my folks, so I swam and helped them turn the place around."
Baptism by fire. That's how a lot of us got started, thrown into the crucible of the kitchen by the scruff of the neck with hardly a life vest in sight; busboys and dishwashers in the wrong place at the wrong time. The garde manger doesn't show so the chef grabs the nearest person and offers him a battlefield promotion. "Congratulations, you're now a cook, our house salad starts with--"
And now an adoring public lavishes praise and adoration on chefs with unbridled enthusiasm that shows no sign of abating.
"I went back to school and earned my Literature degree, graduated and ended up in publishing but after a few years it just wasn't working out. So I went back to cooking and landed with Frank Crispo and he changed everything I thought I knew about food and the restaurant business and he encouraged me to go see what was outside of New York City. So I started taking small road trips and saw this incredible backyard of America beyond New York that I had been missing. It was really eye-opening. And when I visited Louisville during Derby week, I fell in love with this town. A year later I was asked to consider the job at 610 and the timing was perfect so I moved to Kentucky."
And now this former hash-slinger from Brooklyn has reached a level of celebrity in the food world he never thought possible. Chef Lee's been recognized by the James Beard Society with a best chef southeast nomination and received notoriety through appearances on Iron Chef and Top Chef. While at Euphoria, Chef Lee will cook alongside his host and Louisville native Jason Scholz at Chef Scholz's Stella's Southern Bistro and will also welcome Chef Paul Fehribach of Big Jones in Chicago. Chef Lee laughs as he ponders his visit to Euphoria and his growing, glossy status in the food world and what led him to his career change: "I really needed a change because honestly, I had been fired from every publishing gig I ever had."
Follow John Malik on Twitter: www.twitter.com/chefjohnmalik