EDWARD LEE • RESTAURATEUR & CHEF
610 MAGNOLIA • MILKWOOD • TOP CHEF
Edward Lee or just Ed as Bryan and I refer to him, is one of our closer friends in the restaurant industry. A friend we both admire and respect tremendously. Bryan met him well before I did when Ed roped him into a beer chugging wager against a group of college guys at a bar in Charleston. He drug Bryan into the mix (though I doubt he was hard to convince) to see who could chug an entire boot filled with beer… Or something like that. I wasn’t there, but I can tell you that any time with Ed is a great time and you will laugh more in a few hours than some people do their entire life.
I first met Ed during the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival… there seems to be a theme with these Ouí Chef interviews. Unfortunately it was after a particularly terrible experience, not associated with the festival directly, but while dinning with a group of chefs including one from Houston, who Bryan had entrusted to watch out for me one evening while he and Ed cooked for an exclusive sold-out dinner. It was a rough night and one that I won’t share now in order to keep it from overshadowing the amazing human that Ed is… one day I will share as it is important and exposes some of our industry’s underbelly. Since that night however, we’ve all shared countless laughs, dinners and karaoke nights between the many cities and events we’ve attended together. I have photos that he would probably kill me if I posted… I did tell him I was going to post the midnight tennis lessons he gave Bryan while holding a glass of bourbon in our living room after Salty Supper Nº1.
Even better than his amazing tennis lessons, karaoke vocals, or bocci ball abilities, are his business and culinary skills. Which I had the opportunity to witness more of after his visit to Houston to help us with our nonprofit, Southern Salt Foundation’s, first Salty Supper. I knew he was an amazing chef… but I loved getting to see a more serious side of him that included his experiences with business, partners and growing into a well established restaurateur. Ed has won countless awards, regularly appears on TV including being a judge for Top Chef and hosting Mind of a Chef. He’s pretty great and those who know him well can attest to this but my favorite thing I learned that weekend was how Ed got his start, years before he opened 610 Magnolia, as a chef as a kid in New York living in Brooklyn with, in his words, an immigrant family. So, this Ouí Chef is a little different. I don’t ask many questions but instead Ed recounts his culinary roots…
OUI CHEF Q&A
I would love for you to hear your bow-tie story again… it’s my favorite…
Ok. I was 14 and living in NYC. All I ever wanted to do from the time I was 11, was be a chef
I have no fucking idea. I was living in Canarsie Brooklyn. Back then, I hated my life and that I was from an immigrant family. I just knew I needed to get the fuck out of Brooklyn.
I don’t know why, but I used to go to the laundromat in the basement of the building we lived in and everyone would throw their old magazines down there. I used to go down there and take all the old food magazines that people would leave behind and I would make the recipes out of them.
I knew I wanted to be a chef – I had no idea what it meant.
So, I’m 14, and my parents let me get a summer job finally. So, I’m like “I’m going to work in a restaurant”.
I applied to pretty much every restaurant in NYC but no one would hire me. I remember applying for a job as busboy at a restaurant called Terrace 5 at the trump tower. They really liked me, but they said, “you’re too young and we can’t hire you, it’s illegal.”
I said, “ok.”
Apparently they had already hired the owner’s niece but she didn’t work out. So I got a call the next friday at home. There were no cell phones back then. They said, “Can you come to work in an hour? Because we need somebody.” Apparently the niece was a no-show.
So, I was like, “YEAH!”
Wait, so your first break was because of a no-show?
Yes, I got in on a no-show. So I go in but I didn’t have a bow tie but one of the busboys had an extra bow tie. I clipped it on and I go to work. I do a bang up job and everyone’s like, “this is the best busboy we’ve ever had!”
I had never bussed a table. But it’s just taking plates and clearing the table, right? So they call back the next weekend and ask me to come to work again but they said, “if you do well, we’ll hire you.”
So I go… but I didn’t have a bowtie this time and they guy that I borrowed one from the last time wasn’t there. So I have no bowtie and it’s 15 minutes til service. The guy goes, “if you don’t’ have a bowtie you’re not going to get this job. Your a busboy you need a bowtie.”
So I’m panicking. I’m at 57th and 5th avenue and I run out but I have no idea. So I’m sweating and crying and I’m like, “where the hell do I get a bowtie?” I run to the nearest store. Which, at the time I didn’t realise what it was, but it was an Hermes store. I run in and say, “I need a bowtie!!!!!” all the while, I’m panicking.
This older lady goes, “hmmm…”
I mean it was Hermes, so they didn’t have clip-on bow ties and at the time and I had maybe $5 on me.
I explain to this lady and why I need this bowtie and how it’s my first time in the restaurant business and how I want to be a chef. I go on and on about how I have the opportunity for a job in the Trump Tower and if I don’t’ get this job, my life is ruined.
She was an older lady in her 60’s and she says to me, “ok. I’m buying you this bowtie. Do you know how to tie it?”
I said, “no, I don’t know how to tie a bowtie.”
So, she ties my bowtie for me and she says to me, “you owe me $80 and every day you are going to come back and whatever money you made, you are going to pay me back for this bowtie, but I will tie it for you.
From that moment on, every day I went to the Hermes store and she would tie my bow tie and I would give her whatever money I could from what I made the night before, which was usually just $5. Then I would go to work.
It took me like 3 weeks to pay it off but in that time, I learned how to tie a bowtie. To this day I can tie a perfect bowtie – blindfolded. To me it was a very quintessential New York story. I don’t know why she was nice to me and I don’t know why she liked me. I could have left and never paid her. But I didn’t.
For me it was the beginning and it was this idea that there’s something about the restaurant business that was special and the second day of work at this restaurant, I’m in there and I have on my Hermes bowtie on and I’m working.. And this guy goes, “Make a cappuccino table 12!!!”
I don’t know how to do this… this was the old system, when you had to turn the knob to steam the milk and I burned my entire hand but I made this cappuccino and I go out to table 12 and I set it down and it’s fucking Kim Basinger at the table. Shes surrounded by bodyguards… but you have to understand this was back in the day and she was…
She was beautiful!!! Still is…. Crazy hot.
She was the hottest actress on the planet… I put the cappuccino down and she looks at me and she goes, “Thank you… “ But it wasn’t just a thank you to me. To me it was “she likes me…”
I walked away and I swore at that moment this was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That was it. I’ve gone through a lot of things since then… but that was really the first time I was working in a restaurant and I loved it.
I loved every minute of it.
Now the goofy stuff, remember the chefs and myself had a very long day this day and these were shot right around 11:30/12:00 after the dinner… behold Ed vs. Bryan in living room tennis, I was the referee (or whatever you call it in tennis)….