"We'll all get there together": Chef Edward Lee on restaurants' resiliency and #MeToo in the kitchen

"To see chefs selling $8 cheeseburgers just so they can make payroll and pay their way — it's heartbreaking"

By Ashlie D. Stevens
Published June 5, 2021 4:30PM (EDT)
Chef Edward Lee (FOX Image Collection via Getty Images)
Chef Edward Lee (FOX Image Collection via Getty Images)

Over the past 18 months, Edward Lee's day-to-day life has shifted dramatically. In early 2020, the chef, author and TV host was planning to open his fifth restaurant, Khora, in Cincinnati, while managing his other eateries in Louisville and Washington, D.C. 

Then the pandemic hit, and the restaurant industry — and its workers — were immediately in crisis. 

"There was a time that was very scary because everyone got fired or furloughed, and no one knew when the unemployment checks were coming in," Lee said during a recent appearance on Salon Talks. "For some people, it was three weeks. For some people, it was over a month. People were panicking. And they were literally to the point where they said, 'I don't know where my next meal may come from. I'm good this weekend, but maybe not next week.'" 

Lee stepped up and through his nonprofit organization, the LEE Initiative. He launched the Workers Relief Program, which now has 21 kitchens across the U.S. that have fed more than 1 million meals to out-of-work restaurant employees. 

And while things may appear to be normalizing for restaurants as pandemic restrictions continue to lift (and they are, to a great extent), Lee said it's going to take time to unwind the damage that 2020 did to the industry. 

The chef spoke with Salon about the realities of owning a restaurant right now, what it was like launching multiple food-based charitable initiatives during a pandemic and how his past experiences on "Top Chef" prepared him to serve as a guest judge on the current season. To learn more, read or watch our conversation below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Before we chat a little bit about some of the realities of owning a restaurant right now, I wanted to ask a couple of questions about "Top Chef" Season 18, on which you are an all-star judge. You were originally a contestant on the show in 2011. You had a great run. I was curious if you think having faced the fear of having to pack your knives and go will make you a more sympathetic judge? 

Not necessarily. I think some of it is — when you go through the competition, you also realize what it takes to win. And I ultimately did not win. So I think it makes you sympathetic, but not necessarily. I wouldn't give anyone a pass, because you sort of went through it yourself. I had to go home early, so you do, too, if you mess up a dish. It's just the way it works.

Right. Without spoiling anything — because we're partway through the season  is there anyone or maybe a couple of chefs who caught your eye early as potential front runners?

Well, because of timing and schedule, I only joined the show towards the end. I think I'm the last three of the episodes, so by then, it's really on the cream of the crop. So I didn't have to suffer through the early episodes where everyone's cooking bad food. I chose the end, when I knew the food was going to be great.

That's a smart choice. Transitioning a little bit to talking about the food industry off-screen, Bon Appetit published a lengthy interview [with you] in December that was titled, "I'm Afraid It's Too Late To Save Restaurants."  In it, you detailed some of the helplessness that you and other owners were feeling. I think it was eye-opening for a lot of people who maybe aren't super close to the industry. There was a line that I was hoping you could expand upon. You had said, "It's the fluctuations that really hurt us. We rely on patterns and predictability for inventory, for staffing, for everything." Could you say a little bit more about what it's been like over the last year with regards to a lack of predictability?

Yeah. Food is perishable, right? So once you order something from your farmer or distributor, you have a finite amount of time in which to sell it. If you don't, it goes into the garbage. And so if you think about that, it's very tight. We could open up and have a packed house, or we could open up and have zero customers. Or we can have a weekend, which has happened, where we had bought all the food, prepped it, we're waiting for the guests to come and then we had to shut down our restaurant with all of this food and we don't get compensated for it, right? So those things are incredibly frustrating and it doesn't make for a good restaurant.

So, I am sure people who are listening to this over the past year have had a situation where you went to a restaurant and they're like, "Well, we're out of this dish. We're out of that dish. We don't have this." And you get frustrated. But know that that restaurant is trying to predict, right? 

You can't have a hundred portions of everything waiting in the kitchen because you'll lose your business. So we're kind of lowering our pars, in kitchen lingo, and then all of a sudden you get busy, right? And everyone starts ordering salmon and you're like, "We're out of the salmon. We're out of the fried chicken." And it's frustrating because as restaurant people, that's horrible for us. We don't want to do that. 

It's a huge supply chain problem, as well. Because there are no customers, because restaurants were cutting back — the producers, the farmers, everyone went down to low inventory. The chicken producer doesn't want to sit on a thousand pounds of chicken either, so now we're back and open and we're going, "OK, I need 40 pounds of chicken wings again." And they're going, "I don't have it." 

Right.

You got to wait eight weeks for me to raise more chicken. These things are happening in all aspects. We saw it happen with toilet paper and with sanitizer and now it's happening with food. So it's a very interesting thing because we're sort of at the tail-end of the pandemic shutdown, but in some ways we're only at the beginning of the restaurant turmoil, which is going to happen over the next year or two.

On a related note, something I watched a lot of my friends who are chefs go through is anything they could try over the last year, they did. Like meal kits, or they started in-restaurant bodegas or to-go cocktails. They bought tents, and then suddenly the tents weren't OK. I was curious, as a chef, if you could talk a little bit about having to constantly innovate. Was that exhausting?

Oh, it's terribly exhausting. Like when you say innovate, it wasn't innovation. It was just keeping your head above water, just afloat. It was trying to just keep yourself from drowning. So turning my fine dining restaurant into a barbecue shack for four weeks, I enjoyed it and it was fun, but to me it wasn't innovating. It was something that I had to do, right? Which is different from something that I want to do. But I saw all of my chef friends, the entire industry, become so creative...just doing all these crazy things, just to float, just to survive.

Part of it was really fascinating. Some people really did some interesting things. And some of it was heartbreaking. To see chefs selling $8 cheeseburgers just so they can make payroll and pay their way — it's heartbreaking. So it's been a very, very exhausting year, and it's more the psychological exhaustion, not necessarily the physical. And again, it's like we're not out of it. There's still so much unpredictability right now. So it's going to be a while before we get to some kind of "normal," whatever that is.

And you're in a unique position because your restaurant in Cincinnati opened in 2020. Is that correct?

Mm-hmm. 

What was that process like? And how was it different than pre-pandemic restaurant openings?

It was awful. We opened in late October, just in time for the winter shutdown. We got a couple of emails from people like, "Why would you open a restaurant during a pandemic?" And I'm like, "We were supposed to open in April of 2020." So it was all slated, we were on schedule. 

People don't know this. From concept to execution to actual opening of the doors, it takes about two years to get a restaurant off the ground. Also, this is part of a bigger hotel. So all of a sudden we had this whole thing, everything's ready to go in April, May of 2020. So every month we're just waiting, waiting, waiting.

Finally, it got to wintertime. And we're like, "Literally, this brand new equipment that we got is going to turn to junk. [It] has never been used. It's going to turn to junk. We have to throw it away and get new equipment, because you just can't leave it like that." 

So we took a shot and we just opened, and we did okay. We actually had a really good opening and things were great, and then winter happened and there were more restrictions and shutdowns. You kind of lose steam. So then we reopened, I think in February, and now we're trying to find that footing. It's really hard because in any new restaurant, you have to find your loyal customers. You have to get your footing, you have to get your sea legs. And it's just like, we just never got that.

We're still in this weird holding pattern, but the food is great, the service is great. The people who are coming love it...So we're just kind of floating through that way, but things are getting better. Literally, like every week it gets better. So we're hopeful.

That's fantastic. Well, I wanted to ask — I've written before for Salon about how Midwestern food tends to get  I think unfairly  a bad rap sometimes. I had seen it described that at Khora you're making "modern pasta dishes and small plates with a Midwest sensibility." What does Midwestern food mean to you?

So for me, from a very practical standpoint, all of the ancient grains and the flours that we use for the pasta is grown in Ohio. And it gets milled to order when we order it. So they're super fresh. And a lot of them are grains that are indigenous to the United States.

The Midwest is a huge agricultural goldmine. People don't realize how many farms there are in the Midwest. So I think there's a practicality to the food. I didn't grow up in the Midwest. I went to school in Michigan, so, I can't say that I'm like a Midwesterner, but I do think there's a lot of sensibility that is shared with Southern hospitality.

I think it's a slightly more practical version of Southern hospitality. I'm not going to sit up drinking bourbon until four in the morning, but there is this warmth. There's a friendliness, there a conviviality. The people in Cincinnati are so nice, but in a different way than Kentucky, too.

It's not exactly the same. It's not like "slap you on the back and hooting and hollering" hospitality. It's a little bit more reserved. It's a little bit more pulled back. 

Obviously, like any restaurant I do, it's going to be pushing the envelope a little bit more. I'm not here to do Midwestern food.

So when we say it's a Midwestern sensibility, it's like, yeah. We're going to do pasta. And we're going to push the envelope. It's not Italian, but at the end of the day, it's delicious. It's comforting. It's got a lot of butter in it.

We're not going to go crazy and start putting foams on the menu. The color may be different. The sauce may be different. But you will still recognize it once you eat it — that it's good comfort food and fills your belly and makes you feel good.

I'm excited to check it out. I wanted to talk some about your work through both the LEE Initiative and the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, specifically. Let's start with the Workers Relief Program, through which I think you've served more than a million meals to service industry members to date. Is that right?

Yeah. Yeah. I think we're pushing like 1.2 or 1.3 million now. 

That's amazing. Could you tell me some about what it was like to get that initiative off the ground?

It was crazy because we literally started the day after the shutdown. I think it was like March 17th or something was the official shutdown date in Kentucky, and March 18th, we started.

It really started because between my three restaurants, I had all this food. We had a full walk-in. And I was like, "Well, I hate to throw this away." And I had full staff, and I was like, "What are we going to do?" I said, "Let's just cook up some meals and we'll hand them out to the community." And really it started, [by saying], "Let's just hand them out to the neighbors in Old Louisville, the neighborhood." 

I put out a Facebook post or Instagram notice and the first day, like 50 people come. And by the second day, 300 cars were lined up around the block. It was insane — and it was all service industry [members]. It was all our friends and family. It wasn't the homeless guy down the street. It was all restaurant people. 

In the beginning, it wasn't a restaurant relief program. It was just free food for anyone. And it was all restaurant people, and I realized this is going to be an issue. I didn't know it was going to last a year. But I knew this was going to be longer than a few weeks.

There was a time that was very scary because everyone got fired or furloughed, and no one knew when the unemployment checks were coming in. For some people, it was three weeks. For some people, it was over a month.

People were panicking. And they were like literally to the point where they said, "I don't know where my next meal may come from. I'm good this weekend, but maybe not next week. And if those unemployment checks don't come in..." It was a huge panic. So what I'm most proud of, yes, we handed out the meals, and we turned our restaurant into a grocery store, too. 

People literally did not have toilet paper, and we were handing out toilet paper. For us, we were handing out these things, but we were also giving people hope. We were giving people a sense of calm and normalcy in this crazy thing. People would come and stop and then cry for 15 minutes. And we would let them.

I cannot tell you how many times I've said the words "We're all going to get through this. Don't worry." Half the time not even believing it myself, but you give that out to your community. And I think that's what I'm very proud of. And from there, Maker's Mark was our sponsor, and we had so many people come on board. And then what I didn't realize is, people start flooding money into our website for this program. So, we decided this is not just a Louisville problem, this is a nationwide problem. 

So, we went from one kitchen to, I think, 21 kitchens in less than a month.

A couple more things about the LEE initiative that I wanted to highlight — could you talk some about the restaurant reboot relief program?

Yeah. So that part of it is the farms, and what I discovered when I started traveling was if anyone had it worse than restaurants, it's the farmers, right? At least with the restaurants, we were able to turn off our lights, shut off the gas and electricity and go away. And farmers, you can't do that. There's no way to shut off a cow. Or to press pause on a carrot. They just continue to grow. You have to keep putting money into it. So, I saw this one farm and they had taken all their celery, beets and a bunch of things, and it was just sitting in a huge compost pile. 

They were like, "We have no buyers. We have to just destroy it." So there are a lot of farms that had this choice, which was either give your crops away for free or destroy it. It wasn't a viable option, so we started purchasing all this surplus product from these small family farms. 

Basically, it was a credit. Anything from like $15,000 to $25,000. We'd buy all that, they could use it up over time and then we would take the food and just donate it back to restaurants in the community that needed it and that were doing good work. So it was a win-win for everyone. I think we've given out over a  million dollars in grants to small, independent farmers, sustainable family farms around the country. 

That's fantastic. In addition to the pandemic, I think 2020 was also a year where we saw the restaurant industry take another look at some of the gender disparity and sexism in some professional kitchens. I wasn't sure if that was something that you all talk about in the Women Culinary and Spirits Program, which is your six-month program for women chefs? 

I mean, yeah. Of course. This is the whole reason why that exists. Listen, we need more women in leadership roles in the food world. It's just as simple as that. And there's not enough.

Listen, when you have a boys club, as a man, it's fun. But it's not healthy for the industry. It's not healthy for society. It just doesn't work and we've seen that. And, happily, we've gotten — it's 15 now, 10 chefs and five bar spirit mentees. #MeToo has been around for a couple of years now, right? 

And a lot of restaurants have already corrected. And here's the thing — the restaurant industry, to me, is still the best industry in the world. We do everything right. When we are not perfect and when there is a fault, we rise together, we call each other out and we try, and we do it. And we're flexible. And we adjust and we adapt. Having said that, there was a case in Louisville . . .

There was . . .

Like five months ago or something, about a bar manager like raping someone . . . I'm like, who's doing that now? Just forget about anything else, but like, after #MeToo, in a pandemic, who's doing that now? 

I remember when that thing hit the papers and Lindsay [Ofcacek, the LEE Initiative managing director and cofounder]  and I just texted each other and was like, "This is why we have this program. This is why we need it." Because even after all that, even after all the reckoning, there's still some jack-off going out and doing this sh*t. And sorry for my language, but it frustrates me because to me it's not about just that restaurant or that bar. 

It brings the whole industry down. Because then they go, "Well, all men are scumbags." And it's not. Actually, 90% of the industry is really good people.

It's these people who do this, and they need to be called out and we need to fix our stuff. And we are. And we're making strides and we're doing it. But in the meantime, it is still a problem.

My final question for you, Edward, is a two-parter. As we emerge from some COVID restrictions, what needs to happen for restaurants to be able to build back? And is there anything that customers can do to sort of help or assist in that effort?

We're already seeing it, but we need some kind of consistency. We need to be able to control our destiny a little bit. We need to be able to have some predictability in what's going to happen. And I think you're seeing a little bit of it. 

And for customers, I think, listen. Just be patient with us. We're trying as best we can. There's a labor shortage now. There's going to be a food shortage, I guarantee. The prices for food are already going up, they're going to skyrocket this summer, so menu prices are going to go up. Staffing is going to be an issue. That level of meticulous service that you used to get in 2019, may not be there for a while, and it's not for lack of trying. 

It's just there are so many hurdles right now. But, listen, chefs and restaurateurs are a resilient group and we adapt. We'll figure out a way out of this. If you think about it, most of the country opened up in, let's say, March, April. Literally, hundreds of thousands of restaurants all tried to open in a three-week period across the country. It's going to be pandemonium. There's no way that that was going to be a smooth transition. And for my part, I've been dining out at a lot of restaurants to support. You're seeing the struggles, you're seeing it in their faces. And I would just say, be patient. Be patient. And we'll get there. We'll all get there together.


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is a staff writer at Salon, specializing in culture and food.

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