Interview with Edward Lee
What's your favorite new ingredient?
Bulgarian-style yogurt. It's a really tart cow's-milk yogurt we get from Bittersweet Plantation Dairy near New Orleans. It makes an incredible summer soup with cucumbers, a little bit of garlic, wild ramps and some walnuts, with some fresh dill thrown in at the end.
What's the most versatile spice?
One of the best spices is white pepper. People think white pepper is a softer version of black, but it really has its own flavor. We also use Grains of Paradise pepper. It's very intense.
What's the most underused spice?
I think everyone should be using ajowan. It's an Indian spice you can find in any Indian market. It has a slight celery flavor and goes well with anything that's citrus. It's incredible on seafood. I make lobster and orange vinaigrette with ground-up ajowan.
What items should be in every pantry?
I use an alder-smoked sea salt that I buy from the Maine Sea Salt Co. We grind it up and put it on cashews and it's incredible. Dried mustard is another essential. Mustard from a jar is mixed with vinegar, so you can't use it if you're making something with cream, since the vinegar will curdle it. Dried mustard is a good way to add spice without vinegar. And since I'm down in the South, I think that everyone should have a good bag of grits, preferably from Anson Mills, in their cupboard. It's a stomach-filling, satisfying staple.
What's your favorite knife?
I bought a Sabatier knife when I was 22 and I'm still using it now. I'm 34.
What's your favorite pan?
Copper with stainless steel lining. I bought mine from E. Dehillerin in Paris. I spent my entire life savings on copper pans.
What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
I love Bridge Kitchenware in New York City, since obviously I can't go to Paris every other month. Bridge is a close second.
What's the kitchen appliance you wish for most?
An air conditioner. Our kitchen is very small.
What's the best restaurant you ate at in 2005?
I went to Eigensinn Farm in Singhampton, two hours northwest of Toronto. It's in the middle of nowhere. The chef is Michael Stadtlander. He's very eccentric. He has hundreds of acres and raises chicken, sheep, pigs and he cooks directly from the farm. The menu is very limited but it's incredible. He's been doing this at least five or 10 years. He used to be a big-time chef in Canada and I guess he decided he wanted to do this project. It was 10 courses and we ateoutdoors at 10 different stations along the entire farm. His wife is a little Japanese woman who would ring a bell and we walked along to another course. Everyone was dressed in shorts and sandals. It was very relaxed. It was one of my most memorable meals ever.
What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
If I had the choice, I'd go to Pierre Gagnaire in Paris once a week every week for the rest of my life. And I'd end up a very fat, unhealthy man.
Are there any dining trends you see on the rise?
One is the move toward technology and that's definitely going to have its place. The other is biodynamic food, which is not the same thing as seasonal/organic. It's a term created by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher. It's an ecosystem that allows things to exist comfortably with each other [a nonchemical agriculture in which plants are protected against destructive insects by natural means]. The technology and biodynamic trends seem opposing but they're not. I think they ultimately will merge.
On a scale of one to 10, with one representing an emphasis on using in-season ingredients as simply as possible and 10 championing high-tech, scientific cooking, where do you rank yourself?
I'd be a two or three. I do use oranges out of season. I have a Cryovac and [immersion] circulator and sous vide but it's not an exclusive method. It's a way of getting another texture, but I don't write it on my menu. But I'm much more of a proponent of finding fresh ingredients. We start from seed catalogs. We start planning the produce a year in advance. The science doesn't necessarily happen in the kitchen, but at the source. For example, we use kelp for fertilizer.
Do you read cookbooks?
I don't. I try to stay away from cookbooks. I don't want to be antagonistic toward cookbook authors, but cookbooks try to come up with the definitive recipe for something when you'd learn more from trial and error. If you use cookbooks, you tend to get lazy. You learn more from your mistakes than by following a recipe. They're good resources, but they're not the final word. Ultimately, you have to trust your own instincts and taste buds. You only need about five books in your library and that's it. I recommend just buying cookbooks that have an exhaustive amount of recipes, like Julia Child's books or the Joy of Cooking, because they have master recipes for everything, then go from there. But I'll peruse through cookbooks for ideas, and they look pretty.
From whom would you most like to take a cooking class?
Marc Veyrat—he's an oddball chef in France. He does a lot of work with herbs and farming, and pioneered a lot of stuff with herbal cuisine. He changed the way I looked at ingredients, especially herbs. I want to go to his restaurant again whenever I learn more French.
If you were given $1,000 to spend on food, equipment, travel or a restaurant meal, what would you buy? What about with $10?
It would cost more than $1,000, but I'd go to India. I'm fascinated by the food there. I'd travel all over. What we know of Indian food here is such a hodgepodge. I want to learn the difference between what's on the west coast and east coast. It's probably one of the most complex cuisines of the world and no one's gone there and done a definitive study. With $10, I'd go to Chicago and get a Chicago dog with extra-hot peppers. They're $2.50. I'd get four.