We spoke to the chef about his newest restaurant and his favorite American vacation spot.
Edward Lee's Maine
Credit: Courtesy of NBCUniversal

Chef Edward Lee has fallen in love with the South, but he always finds time to travel: recent trips took him to Park City, the Cayman Islands, and the Appalachian mountains. As he celebrates 15 years in Louisville—and the opening of his third restaurant, Whiskey Dry, we chatted with the chef about how he landed in the South, his love for bourbon, and the annual American adventure he takes with his family.

How did you find yourself in Louisville?

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and after a set of serendipitous circumstances, I found myself, at 29, without a job. I realized, I’ve been to Europe and Asia, but I’ve never seen America. I decided to get in a car and drive around the South and Midwest, to 15 different states. I went to Michigan, Wisconsin, the Carolinas, Virginia, Atlanta, Louisiana, and more. I had gumbo, beignets, and biscuits for the first time. I’d eaten the most exotic Indian curries and pigs’ feet from Malaysian restaurants, but I felt like I’d never really had fried chicken until I came to the South. I’d had prosciutto but not country ham — these things are all part of my culinary identity now, and I didn’t discover them until my late 20s.

I happened to be in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby. I drank too much bourbon and met some beautiful women in pretty dresses and hats. In Brooklyn, all my friends listened to hip hop growing up, but I was the weird Asian kid listening to Johnny Cash. Musically, I felt more attuned to the south. A year after my trip, the gentleman who owned 610 Magnolia called and asked me to take over his restaurant. When I first got to Louisville, it was a small, sleepy town that wasn’t on anyone’s radar. The city is growing every year, and there’s a real diversity of restaurants, from Jewish to Midwestern to Pennsylvania Dutch to Southern. They all meet here. There was something about it that I fell in love with.

How did the idea for Whiskey Dry, your newest restaurant, come about?

I’ve become a huge champion of bourbon since I’ve lived here. I wanted to tell the story of bourbon through a chef’s eyes. I’m really interested in using the burger as a blank canvas, and pairing it with whiskey, whether it’s Irish, Japanese, American, or Belgian.

What are some of your favorite whiskeys?

My favorite whiskey is always the one that’s in my hands. It’s hard to pick a favorite since I live in bourbon county, but Jefferson’s is a brand I love working with. I have my own bourbon that I put out with them. Angel’s Envy is one that is tearing it up right now, and they really represent to me the new generation of bourbon. They’re very forward-thinking and creative. Then there’s Willett, which is equally incredible but very much tied to their tradition and past. Bourbon fanatics can come to Louisville and have 20 to 30 bourbons they’ve never tasted before. It reminds me of when Napa made that transition from tried-and-true old-school vineyards to a haven for boutique wineries. That’s what’s happening now in Louisville.

Tell me about your favorite trip in the U.S.

Traveling to the southern coast of Maine has become a tradition. I always go with my family in August, and it’s a magical time of year. The beaches in this area are so different. They’re dark and silty, almost like you’re walking on soft concrete. It’s a place to be contemplative, with all the inlet beaches that curve around and go into cliffs and rock formations. In Maine, I’ve discovered that I love sailing. We get a real captain — I don’t get my family lost at sea — with a gorgeous wooden sailboat with a 40-foot mast. I took my three-year-old daughter with me about 10 miles out to sea, and it was cold and windy, with salt water crashing in your face. It’s not a martini-in-your-hand, lounging-on-the-deck kind of sailing. My daughter was scared at first, but she loved it. It’s a part of nature that is both beautiful and frightening at the same time.