TOP CHEF CONTESTANT EDWARD LEE AT BELLYQ

Okay, I admit–I’ve been on a Top Chef binge lately. Fortunately, my type of self-indulgence doesn’t lead to cirrhosis or chlamydia, so I leapt at an invitation to meet Top Chef and Iron Chef contestant Edward Lee at his private book signing at bellyQ. Guests at the event received complimentary Jefferson’s Reserve cocktails, a bottle of Red Boat Fish Sauce, and a signed copy of Lee’s cookbook, Smoke & Pickles. (“One part Southern soul, one part Asian spice, and one part New York attitude, Smoke & Pickles shares 130 recipes that mix the flavors and techniques of his Korean roots, his classical French training, and his Louisville, Kentucky home.”).

After a hideously long drive down a congested I-94, I arrive an hour late (a.k.a. just on time) but am warmly greeted by Lee’s publicist. She introduces me to Lee, who shakes my measly little journalist hand before resuming his conversation with other attendees. As I wait for my turn to chat with Lee, I wander off to taste some delectable bites.

The menu of southern, Asian-inspired hour de voires included:

  • Tamarind Glazed Strawberry Ham
  • Cornmeal Fried Oysters with Lettuce Wrap
  • Pork Crackling
  • White Pear Kimchi

Being particularly Southern and Asian, my taste buds expected a little more from the bites, which were decently tasty. As usual, I find myself in bellyQ’s back kitchen, where young, tattooed chefs carve away at the ham and assemble lettuces for the fried oysters. Behind-the-scenes is never glamorous (especially when you see vats of sauce and garnish in giant metal containers), but there’s something glorious about the backstage process. It’s a mad orchestra of plating and prepping, with chefs frying away and servers dumping leftovers into take-out boxes.

Because the kitchen openly faces the dining area, I’m able to observe a fascinating dichotomy: a well-dressed, mostly professional crowd sipping on classy cocktails versus a diverse band of artistic misfits cranking out delicious food. I discover that bellyQ servers and cooks, whose experience range from restaurant management to high-end dining, actually enjoy their job.

Which I find surprising since line chefs work notoriously hard and long hours. But as founder Bill Kim later tells me, you gotta love what you do, even if the perks are rare and lackluster. Kim tells me that he went directly to Kendall College after high school while his Korean friends followed the usual path to lawyerhood, doctorhood, and engineeringhood (“Asian parents,” we both acknowledge). Years of kitchen experience later (including Charlie Trotter’s and Le Lan), he’s opened a slew of Belly restaurants. Given his rising culinary stardom (and the accompanying asstight schedules), Kim acts more as a “businessman” than a chef nowadays, participating in media events and giving back to the community (aka fundraisers, hosting book signings, collaborating with other small businesses, etc). I ask him whether he’s ever modified his food for the American palette, and he replies that he gets “lots of shit” from people who say his menu isn’t traditional Korean. In fact, his menu is diversely Asian, with Korean kimchi, Chinese steamed buns (or bao), and Japanese edamame.

In addition to bonding over our heritage and love for food, Kim also imparts a bit of sage career advice. He tells me to pursue my passion, regardless of what friends, parents, or critics might say. But it’s also easy to give romantic career advice if you’re Bill Kim or Edward Lee–you’ve paid your dues and have sixteen medals on your shiny golden belt.

Despite their successes, I wonder–at what point does a chef become the Richard Blais who runs the gammit of celebrity shows, cookbook deals, and media tours?

The restaurant industry is fiercely Darwinian, and chefs who aren’t hustling will inevitably fall behind. Although I chatted only briefly with Ed, I can tell he’s burned out. Puffing on a cigarette after downing a shot of Bourbon, Lee looks like he could drink 20 more beers. In fact, with 18 more signings on his book tour, Lee tells me that he’s “always” stressed (though static photographs with zealous fans would never reveal that). But really, with his cornucopia of successes and the cultural expectations of Asian men, I don’t blame him.

In the meantime, I’m taking it easy, slowly sipping on my cocktail as the evening winds down.