Chef Edward Lee sets out to put a human face on the story of how immigrants shape the American food landscape in his new book “Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine.” Lee visits 16 areas where he meets and tells the stories of chefs, cooks, and restaurant owners — some recent immigrants, some from longer ago. “Whenever we talk about celebrity chefs, it’s very romantic and even poetic. Usually when we talk about the mom-and-pop or the ethnic restaurants, we talk about the dish. We very rarely talk about the person who made the dish,” Lee says.
Lee’s travels took him to big cities — including his early home Brooklyn — as well as small towns and rural areas. “I started to map out all these places in the country where there was interesting ethnic food going on. In all these places in middle America, and the South, and small towns, there’s really cool immigrant stuff happening. It’s an interesting story of America,” he says.
The chef was born in South Korea, raised in Brooklyn, and is the chef-owner of several restaurants in Louisville, Ky. He previously wrote the cookbook “Smoke & Pickles” and appeared on “Top Chef” and “The Mind of a Chef.”
Q. You’re a busy guy. What made you want to spend time traveling around the country doing this research?
A. The idea came when I was on tour with the first book. I traveled to so many different cities, eating all these meals by myself. I’d go to a fancy place, then the next city I would go to just like a hole-in-the-wall. I started to think about it and wonder: What’s the difference between that hole-in-the-wall and the Michelin star restaurant? I mean, maybe they’re not using caviar and truffles, but the complexity of the food and the intent behind it, the love, the care, and the passion, it’s the same.
Q. Did you know all the places you wanted to visit before you started?
A. I had three or four places that I for sure wanted to visit. Lowell was one of the first places I went to.
Q. Why was Lowell at the top of your list?
A. It was just a fascinating story. Maybe outside of Los Angeles, [Lowell has] the largest concentration of Cambodians in America. Forty percent of Lowell is now Cambodian. I’m glad I started in Lowell because my original concept for the book was to just go there and write about the Cambodian food and hopefully meet some Cambodians who would help me navigate it. I really fell in love with this one restaurant, this one chef who goes by the name Sam. I spent a few days with him and his family. They were super nice people and the food was incredible. That was supposed to be the whole story, this beautiful immigrant story. And then I was driving around Lowell in the afternoon and I drove by Ramalho’s West End Gym, which is where they filmed “The Fighter.” I love the movie. I love boxing. I come from Louisville where Muhammad Ali is god.
Q. How did that change the story?
A. I went in and I was talking to the guys and I wanted to see what the Irish culture was like. There are no Irish boxers anymore. They’re all African-American or Latino kids at the gym. Then a guy said to me, if you want to know about the history of Lowell, you have to find this guy Irish Jack Brady. He’s got a bar called the Gaelic Club (which has since closed). I thought he was going to give me 10 minutes of his time. And we sat down for three hours. As I was listening to him talk about his history and the struggle of the Irish and how the Irish were oppressed, it just reminded me that that’s what the Cambodians are doing now. That’s what my family did in the ’70s in Brooklyn. I guess that’s the story that we all go through. In that moment I was like, I can’t tell the story of Sam the Cambodian chef without telling the story of this Irish boxer. There’s this guy making beautiful food two blocks away from this Irish boxer who’s running this incredible hole-in-the wall Irish club where you can smoke and listen to polka music and it’s just incredible. To me, that’s America.
Q. Did being on TV help open doors at these out-of-the-way restaurants?
A. That was the one extra refreshing thing. They had no idea who I am. They don’t care about “Top Chef” or “Mind of a Chef.” I don’t think it’s because I’m a chef that I had these experiences. You can do the exact same thing. All it takes is a little bit of courage and an adventurous spirit and some curiosity. There’s probably an interesting family running an interesting mom-and-pop restaurant not too far from where you live. It’s probably a place you’ve been going to for years and probably you haven’t reached out and talked to them.
Q. Immigration is such a politically charged issue right now. Did that influence your approach to the book?
‘There’s probably an interesting family running an interesting mom-and-pop restaurant not too far from where you live. ’
A. I didn’t want it to be about propaganda or trying to convince anyone. I wanted it to be about telling stories. Hopefully I left out any talking on a soapbox. To me, the way to combat the kind of division [the country experiences] is to all agree that we love good food. Maybe through that we can see a window into some cultures that we didn’t otherwise think of as being friendly or haven’t thought about in very human ways. How often do you get invited to a traditional Nigerian or Moroccan meal? But it’s through food that we can do this stuff.Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.