Food & Wine: Lee Richardson

Lee Richardson

F&W Star Chef

Chef: Lee Richardson

Experience: Capital Hotel (Little Rock, AR); August (New Orleans, LA)

Education: University of Colorado

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from that person?
My paternal grandmother made the most flavorful, soul-satisfying meals that I’ve ever had. When I wanted to make other people feel that way, I started asking her for recipes and tried to learn from her. She didn’t really have recipes to hand me. She would give me a list of specific ingredients with terms like “bunch,” “few” and “handful” but no prescribed method. I learned to cook my way back to the memory I had of her food. What she provided was the opportunity to make the discovery on my own.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
One is gumbo, because there’s a prescribed list of ingredients but enough subtle variability that every gumbo produced reflects the person making it. There’s a cultural continuity in the crafting of a gumbo, which is something I’ve focused on as I’ve gotten off the line and begun to develop myself as a chef.

The other is crawfish with rice, grits and greens, my regional answer to the local cuisines without adding extraneous twists. The part of Arkansas where I live is on the edge of a rice-growing zone and has a culture of pork and greens. We’re surrounded by catfish ponds that used to be cotton fields, and some of them are now becoming corn fields.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first thing that I really got in the kitchen was a Cumberland sauce that I pulled out of one of my mom’s cookbooks, to put on a sautéed wild duck breast. I was about 12. I thought it was great. The duck was probably a little dry, but the Cumberland sauce came out well. It’s sweet and tangy and hit my palate pretty well. I was at a deer hunting camp and someone had brought me those ducks. It was so exotic to me.

What someone should try at home is something they’ve had that they know they love. They could get a recipe from a chef at a restaurant they like, so they would have had the finished dish before they get started. It’s an opportunity to get from where they are to where they want to be, and that’s when the recipe becomes a guide and interacts with your cooking.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
So many things that are important: humility, patience, determination, emotion, good will and compassion. I’m not sure they are skills but they are essential.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how do you use it?
Hands down, salt. You can’t do anything without it. I like kosher salt as an all purpose, coarse sel gris on meat, and Maldon to finish fresh foods.

What is your current food obsession?
I’ve gotten into studying fermentation lately. In the context of the big Southern food explosion and farmers’ markets, I think an obvious next step is that we end up wanting to be further back in time, when everything was much more an example of craftsmanship as opposed to efficiency and industrialization.

Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
I’m dying to get back to Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis because their food has a very real, rustic and humble communication to me.

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, in Marianna, Arkansas. They’re a treasure in old-school barbecue. I try to get there at least once a year, usually marking an epic duck hunting weekend. I like to go out back to hang out with the pit master for a little while. He's very serious about how he handles his fire. The wood is burned in a separate fire and only well-developed coals are used to cook the pork. You can see, feel and smell the history in that smokehouse.

The Upperline in New Orleans. Before I left New Orleans, my culinary focus was on preserving the flavors I knew as a kid. I had begun to feel that there was an increasing tendency for Cajun and Creole food to become more and more formulaic, retaining its appearance but losing something, its iconic intimacy. I was concerned that I was looking at one of the last generations of New Orleanian home cooks to have family recipes handed from generation to generation. I had dinner at The Upperline last year during Jazz Fest. Even with all of the new things going on in food and the changes in technology use, that dinner at The Upperline assured me that the defining essences of traditional Creole cuisine are alive and well. This restaurant is a true keeper of the flame, and I am dying to get back.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
I think traveling to India would be a fantastic bang-for-the-buck food trip. For me, it’s a very exotic and varied cuisine, and the dollar-to-flavor impact would be hard to beat. I’d like to travel around the different regions.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I just recently got a muddler that was hand-turned on a lathe right in front of me in Memphis. It’s made from an Osage orange tree, also called hedge apple, which is a green, apple-size fruit with a rough, lemon-like texture on the outside. Native Americans use the wood to make bows because it’s hard and pliable.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I’m pretty good at writing and counseling. Even my cooking is focused upon human interaction and soliciting emotion. As I chef, I spend more time in social work and counseling than I do working with food.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
It would be off the grid, where nothing could be done by large outside sources. Flour would be milled and condiments would be made in house and there’d be nothing that wasn’t crafted right there. I’d keep it in Arkansas. I love this region.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I hope that it will be fresh, unpasteurized milk. Although that would take us to a much earlier time in our history, it would be about the most ground-breaking thing I could think of.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
From the fridge: leftover cold mushroom and pepperoni pizza.

Manchego cheese and figs are my favorite snack.

Brownie Brittle. It’s like the pita chip version of a brownie. I don’t buy too many packaged ingredients, but these are pretty good.

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