The award-winning southern chef has opened a hotly anticipated restaurant in an area better known for fast food and chains.

By Amy McKeever
September 10, 2015
chicken and waffles
Credit: Moshe Zusman

There hasn’t always been much exciting about the dining scene at Maryland’s National Harbor, a waterfront commercial development just outside of Washington, D.C. It’s mostly chains, hotel restaurants, and fast food, catering largely to a rotation of conventioneers. But over Labor Day weekend, acclaimed Louisville chef Edward Lee—who starred on Top Chef and Mind of a Chef—opened the highly anticipated Succotash, which serves Lee’s interpretation of Southern food with Asian flavors.

“We got crushed on opening day,” Lee says, describing a packed house of Washingtonians, tourists, and business travelers from all over the world. Some were staying at nearby hotels, some were native Washingtonians, others drove across the Potomac River from Virginia to check out the buzz, and still others were in town for a convention at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just up the block from the restaurant.

Succotash is the chef’s first restaurant outside of Louisville, in partnership with locally based KNEAD Hospitality + Design’s Michael Reginbogin and Jason Berry. Lee was attracted to opening in the National Harbor partly because of its waterfront. He grew up near the East River in Brooklyn, he says, and he likes to be near water. He also already had his eye on a D.C. expansion, thanks to the existing caliber of chefs and restaurants there. But opening in National Harbor had its challenges—namely, creating a menu in a chain-dominated area where people might just want a burger and fries.

It was a challenge that Lee more or less ignored, arguing that it’s wrong to make assumptions about diners based on where they’re from. “People can surprise you, so why not open with what you really want to do with your heart?” he asked. In the restaurant’s first two nights of service, the top-selling item was Lee’s own favorite dish, the fried catfish with jalapeno aioli. As of the second night of service, the restaurant had only sold one hamburger.

“The world is so much more even,” Lee says. “People in Boise, Idaho, have just as much access to information and to ingredients as someone from New York City, so why wouldn’t they be curious?”

Lee also points out that Maryland is just far enough south that diners have “a little more complex knowledge of Southern food” than those further north might. Southern food isn’t just about fried chicken and biscuits; it’s about trout and fried catfish with jalapeno aioli, too. “This is my version of Southern food,” he says.

Lee acknowledges there’s a flipside to that: Those familiar with Southern food also tend to be partial to whatever preparation they grew up with, be it their grandma’s biscuits or their local diner’s grits. But the chef loves that kind of passion. “I want people to come in here and argue with me about the succotash,” he says. “That’s the whole point. When you do that, you start to open up an entire dialogue about food. Then you start to understand what is food, what is the origin of a recipe, what does it mean to be authentic—all the questions that light a fire in me. What does it mean to be authentic in National Harbor, which is all artificial?”

He argues that authenticity is all about what you create, as well as the response and feeling you get from the community. “As soon as the community embraces you and what you’re doing, and believes that it comes from the heart and understands it as a ritual, and it becomes a tradition, then it’s authentic.” The menu at Succotash may be authentic to Lee right now, but ultimately he believes it’ll up to the diners to decide what’s authentic for them.

Succotash opened on Labor Day for dinner service only, with plans to roll out lunch, breakfast and brunch in the weeks to come. Though he’s still based in Louisville, Lee says he’ll be spending lots of time in at the location to be as hands-on as possible with the restaurant, and help foster a laid-back atmosphere for people to come in for a whiskey, good meal, and a fun time. “We want people to come in and enjoy not just the food, but the spirit of the food,” he says.

Amy McKeever is on the D.C. beat for Travel + Leisure. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.