Soy sauce, stack cake, and a three-headed dragon.
There's a certain Dickensian grandeur to Ed Lee’s style of storytelling. There’s the one about scaling the steam machine at the garment factory where his mother worked, his playground as a kid in 1980s New York City. The one about the smell of the hogs drifting off the JBS Swift kill floor on those hot, windless days in Louisville, Kentucky. The saleswoman who took pity on a know-nothing kid and let him pay off his first bow tie in installments. Those five months he spent shoveling elephant dung for the circus. Turns out when you’re trapped in a car for two days with a jug of moonshine, a case of sorghum syrup, two barrels of soy sauce, your mother, and a journalist, there’s a lot of time for recollection.
Soon Ja Lee (that’s Mrs. Lee to you and me) has the same storytelling gene. When I ask what her son was like as a baby, she shares an elaborate dream she had just before he was conceived—a lake, a three-headed dragon, a prophecy. She and her husband came to the U.S. from Seoul in 1970; they settled in Canarsie, Brooklyn, and into a life of hard work familiar to many immigrant families—at various times, there was the garment factory, a diner, a dry cleaner, a travel agency. Ed and his sister didn’t see a lot of their mom growing up, and as the chef’s star rose in the restaurant world, time he might have spent with her as an adult started to slip away, too.
These days Ed spends a lot of time in the car as he travels between his restaurants MilkWood and 610 Magnolia in Louisville and Succotash in Washington, D.C. And so, on a muggy July day, Mrs. Lee and I boarded a plane to Louisville to take the drive with him, in a rented supersize Denali, through the hills of Eastern Kentucky, the kudzu-choked trails of Appalachia, and the foggy stretches of the Shenandoah Valley.
But first, we needed to see a man about a barrel. Matt Jamie ages his own soy sauce in spent whiskey casks at Bourbon Barrel Foods in the Butchertown Market, and the pungent, smoky results are a pantry staple at Ed’s restaurants. “I like when people take a tradition and bend it to their will,” Ed says. “The world is split between preservationists and innovators. One needs the other to continue the dialogue.” Inside, he crouches by a barrel and snaps off one of the blackish spears seeping through the staves. “This is my favorite thing. It’s like a soy sauce icicle,” he says, offering a piece to Mrs. Lee. (“Too salty.”) We haul two barrels into the car to mule to D.C. and take off, the soy sloshing precariously in the way-back seat.
There’s no music on this ride—Ed stopped buying tunes around the time the rest of the world stopped buying CDs. So instead, we talk about how the Brooklyn-raised son of Korean immigrants with a past that includes bartending at an S and M nightclub could possibly wind up leading the culinary conversation in Kentucky. “It’s a border state. It has something of an identity crisis, and I function well in that,” he says. “I like things that are in flux—that exist in a gray area.” We get pulled over for going 80 mph in a 70 mph zone, but the cop lets us off with a warning. “Can’t catch all the fish, so he just catches one,” says Mrs. Lee. We pay a visit to , a fifth-generation sorghum farmer in Jeffersonville, Kentucky, who takes us on a bumpy pickup ride through the tall grass. Mrs. Lee hasn’t seen sorghum before, so Townsend bends a stalk and twists it, letting the sweet green nectar dribble into her palm. She takes a stalk for the road.
There’s another first for Mrs. Lee two hours south in Corbin, Kentucky: fried okra. We taste it together at , a taproom and restaurant from Kristin Smith, Ed’s pal, a sixth-generation farmer and missionary turned chef. It’s too crispy on the outside and too juicy on the inside according to Mrs. Lee, but Smith rolls with it and shaves us a few wispy slices of her 8-month-cured ham. She serves us stack cake bound with sticky apple butter and tells us a sweet story about the regional dish: Poor families in Appalachia would each contribute one layer on special occasions. We hold that story in our hearts for the three hours it takes to find Travis Milton.
“That story is bullshit,” Milton tells us after we arrive at his restaurant, , in St. Paul, Virginia. Milton grew up near this small coal-mining town in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He’s spent a lot of time unknotting the distortions and myths about the people of Appalachia—even, as it turns out, the heartwarming ones. There’s not a lot of folklore on the menu at Milton’s; instead he serves us faithful renditions of the food he grew up with: “greasy beans” with black garlic; bacon-fat cornbread; fat slices of tomato with dollops of Duke’s mayo; chicken and dumplings; even a funky Appalachian take on kimchi, in honor of Mrs. Lee. “I like this. This is sigol food,” she says, which Ed translates to mean rural, countryside cooking. She gets it.
We take off early the next morning and beeline for the in Marion, Virginia, a roadside staple since 1957. We eat what is essentially a corn dog for breakfast, just three displaced New Yorkers in the outlands of Virginia, in a wood-paneled room with banjo music noodling out of a speaker somewhere, yellow mustard on our chins. Mrs. Lee is nonplussed, but she likes the onion rings. Later in the car, she falls asleep, and Ed tells me about the very distinct first-generation struggle of extracting a sense of pride from immigrant parents. “I’d show her my face in mkgallery, and she wouldn’t understand,” he says. “I’d show her my season of Top Chef, and she’d say, ‘Who watches that?’ But then I was on the cover of The Korea Times, and she photocopied it and dispensed it all over the tristate area.”
Rain clouds are gathering as we approach Staunton, Virginia, and the meadows give way to churches and a Harley dealership. Chef Ian Boden has lunch waiting for us at : grilled duck hearts with shiso and fermented sour cherries; peaches with Urfa biber; “lamb ham” and gochujang (Korean chile paste), in deference to Mrs. Lee. She comes alive around the table, telling stories of a time when Ed had a 27-inch waist, wore mascara and combat boots, and had a hot restaurant in Manhattan where Caroline Kennedy and Joe Strummer came to eat ojingeo sundae and bibimbap.
We could go on like this, but right now, we have soy sauce burning a hole through the back seat and three more hours through the Shenandoah Valley to D.C. We get in just before sunset. Everyone has to pee, the barrels are heavier than Ed remembers, and the alarm on the back door at Succotash is wailing, wailing, wailing while he hauls the barrels into the kitchen. Mrs. Lee says she isn’t hungry, but Ed orders for her anyway: He wants her to try his fried chicken with pickled okra—some chicken pieces dripping with sorghum syrup, others with honey and gochujang.
We leave her at the table to watch the dining room fill up from the mezzanine above. Succotash is gleaming white, with elegant tufted leather banquettes and a long marble bar, crowded now with beautiful people sipping bourbon milk punches and juleps. It feels a world away from the roadside corn dogs and sorghum fields of the past few days. Ed may be working with the same elements and pulling from the same larder, but he is telling a new story here: his own. “I want my mom to see that I’m a different person than she saw me as in my 20s and 30s,” Ed says. “All expressive cuisine comes from personal experience.”
We come back to the table. The plates are clean.