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Chef Edward Lee

In early March Food Republic will be heading to Vietnam with three top American chefs to eat and drink our way around the country. We will visit the bun cha stalls in Hanoi and the magical cao lau well in Hoi An. We’ll hit the Ben Thanh Market to possibly drink some cobra wine, which is most certainly a thing. Joining us: Edward Lee (610 Magnolia in Louisville), Stuart Brioza (State Bird Provisions in San Francisco), Paul Qui (Qui in Austin) and Bryan Caswell (Reef in Houston). The trip is being organized by our friends at Red Boat Fish Sauce

Edward Lee is a former Top Chef and Iron Chef standout, Louisville restaurateur, bourbon expert and the kind of guy who encourages you to jump into a pool, fully clothed, at one of the many food festival after-parties we’ve closed down with the guy. Born in Brooklyn, he spent time working in book publishing before moving to Louisville to immerse himself in the southern culinary traditions.

In May he will release his first book Smoke and Pickles, where he will tell his story with a collection of 130 recipes and stories that detail how his Korean background is integrated into Kentucky products, with a little “Brooklyn chutzpah” thrown in for good measure. And later this month he is scheduled to open MilkWood in the Actors Theater of Louisville, a restaurant focusing on Southern comfort food with an Asian pantry. But onto the topic of Vietnam!  

What are you looking forward to on the trip?
For me, it’s all about becoming immersed into the culture. I eat so much Vietnamese food. In every city I go to, I will probably check out a Vietnamese restaurant or some kind of Southeast Asian food. And we eat it so out of context. We drive to a strip mall and do our thing. You can’t take food out of sociological culture, which is unfortunately for lack of anything better, what we do here in America. We appropriate cuisines from all over the globe, bring it to ourselves, slightly Americanize it and take it outside of any kind of cultural experience and turn it into a culinary experience. There’s nothing wrong and it’s the best we can do, but when you actually go and get to experience that food in its culture, it’s always such a richer experience and gives you so much more of an understanding of why.

I went to Vietnam in 2010 and there is a huge restaurant culture in the cities. Everyone eats out every night of the week, which is based on the fact that kitchen space is really limited.
Right. And you don’t even know that until you go there and are able to say, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” An understanding is mostly what I’m hoping to gain from this. It helps you understand the food: Why is green papaya so popular? I don’t know now but I’m sure you go there and see that there are just a ton of papayas coming from these trees or something like that. It’s interesting for me to understand the culture and to have breakfast, lunch and dinner every day and understand how they eat.

Is there a dish you really want to decode a bit?
There’s an herb, which of course I forget the name of now, that I am fascinated by. It’s really hard to get here – there’s no name for it in English – it’s a green herb that is dried and fermented. It comes in plastic packages here and it’s just black. There’s a local Vietnamese restaurant here [in Louisville] that gets some because they go to Vietnam twice a year and bring some back. They make this soup out of it that’s just black and it’s the most delicious thing in the world. It’s never on their menu, it’s just some shit that they bring back and eat because they miss it.

What is your impression of Vietnam as a country before going there?
I’m assuming it’s pretty Southeast Asian. I’m assuming the culture is still pretty raw, but there will be places like Saigon and Hanoi that are more tourist-run. What I’m most interested in delving into is farm and agriculture. You see the pictures of people on little bamboo boats going through the river [laughs]. We’ll see if that really exists. I’m expecting a mix of culture, both old and new world, which I always find interesting. I find it interesting that almost wherever you go in this world, there is a layer of American culture that has washed over most countries.

Let’s talk about fish sauce, which Vietnam is quite famous for. Have you seen it made?
No, I haven’t and I’m very excited for that.

What about cooking with the sauce in general? How does it transform your food or give it identity?
I use fish sauce in applications that are not necessarily Asian food, and to me that’s the biggest inspiration or advantage of using it — it adds umami elements to dishes that don’t have it or are lacking in it. I am interested in seeing it in its natural state: I may never make that kind of food, but I can pull lessons from it and then adapt it to what I do. It completely changed the way I look at umami. It’s funny – I know [fellow FR Fish Sauce Trail chef] Chris Cosentino thinks of it the same way. I don’t even like calling it “fish sauce” because fish has such connotations to it and it’s not a fishy sauce. It’s funky but it’s almost like fermented umami. People say, “Oh, fish sauce? Ew” but you can’t think of it like that. You have to almost look at it from a different angle.