A rendering of the main dining room at the soon-to-open Nami in Louisville, Ky./Rendering courtesy of Nami.
It has been about five years since chef and restaurateur Edward Lee has opened a new concept in his part-time hometown of Louisville, Ky. But Lee is preparing to launch something new next month.
Actually, two new concepts.
The chef and industry changemaker has long been known for the restaurant 610 Magnolia in Louisville, which is going strong after 21 years. He also created the concept Succotash, now with several locations in the Washington, D.C. area operated by Knead Hospitality. His concept Milkwood closed during the pandemic, but was transformed for a time into McAtee Community Kitchen to honor a local restaurant operator who was killed during Black Lives Matter protests in Louisville.
Of course, he is also known for his work on screen. He earned an Emmy for his role in season 3 of “Mind of a Chef,” and Lee also wrote and hosted the documentary “Fermented” in 2017 and wrote two books (Smoke & Pickles and Buttermilk Graffiti).
And Lee is also known as the co-founder of the LEE Initiative—in this case LEE stands for Let’s Empower Employment. It’s an organization founded six years ago to foster diversity and equity in the restaurant industry, but it caught fire during the pandemic years, when many in the industry—and more broadly—called for change.
“It started in response to the MeToo movement and we wanted to make sure we were doing something to promote more women into positions of power,” said Lee. “There are a ton of women in the industry, but when you go up the ranks, from line cook to waiter to manager … to owner and investors, it becomes increasingly imbalanced.”
Lee on balancing the scales:
The LEE Initiative, for example, includes programs to help develop women chefs into positions of leadership. And the organization developed grants to support Black-owned businesses and industry worker relief.
And the group has exciting new plans coming this year, Lee said, though he was not ready to reveal details.
First will come Nami.
Described as a modern Korean steakhouse, the new concept Nami will be a return to roots for the Asian-American chef. The menu is a collaboration with Yeon-Hee Chung, a Louisville chef who was known for the more traditional Korean restaurant Charim that closed pre-pandemic.
Also in the kitchen will be Breanna Baker, who started as an intern at 610 Magnolia and climbed the ranks quickly, serving most recently as chef de cuisine there.
Baker is only 24, Lee said, but she showed considerable talent from early days. She is also an alum of the Lee Initiative mentorship program for female chefs, which helped boost her confidence and leadership skills.
“To me, you can tell fairly quickly a person’s passion and their drive and their willingness to commit to excellence, and we saw that pretty early in her career [which has] progressed pretty rapidly,” said Lee. “It’s about maturity, not age.”
Also joining Nami is Stacie Stewart as general manager and director of cocktails. Stewart worked with Lee at Milkwood.
The female-focused team—outside of Lee, of course—wasn’t intentional, he said. “We tapped people who were talented.”
The two-story Nami will feature some tables with grills, which is a more traditional style of meat-focused concepts in Korea, but not everyone wants to cook their own, he said. Other traditional dishes, like banchan and bibimbap, mandu and pa jun will be on the menu, and the kimchi will be made in house.
And there will be a second concept. Out of the same kitchen, Lee will operate a takeout-only brand called Neighbors Noodles.
The restaurant is in an apartment building, said Lee, and because the steakhouse will likely have a somewhat higher price point, Lee wanted to offer something more casual to residents and others in the neighborhood, who don’t have access to a great bowl of noodles anywhere nearby, he said.
In the national conversation about how to make the restaurant industry more sustainable, Lee admits he doesn’t necessarily have answers.
Young people don’t seem to want to work in restaurants, and that has to change, he said. Lee doesn’t think higher wages are necessarily the answer either. Part of it is simply treating people like humans and not cogs.
Restaurant workers tend to be creative people so he tries to foster an environment where creative juices can flow, for example. Everyone on staff has an opportunity to weigh in on dishes, for example.
“We all have opinions, and we all want our opinions to be validated, and we’re better for it,” he said.
Lee does not see the restaurant industry as fundamentally broken. But he does see a need for trying new things and experimentation—if for no other reason than breaking old habits.
“I tell the general public all the time that we live in a really amazing restaurant culture right now and people take it for granted,” he said. “Go back 40 years, there was no such thing as an American restaurant industry, there was no such thing as American cuisine. There wasn’t this vibrancy. We quickly forget that we built this incredible, vibrant industry out of nothing in about a generation and a half. And we could lose it just as quickly. I don’t think we want to live in a landscape where all you have are chain restaurants and fast food.
“If we like the restaurant industry the way it is now—and everyone does—we have to figure out ways that it can be sustainable.”
Lee on the resilience of restaurants:
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