When I ask chef Edward Lee what he eats for breakfast, he laughs. "I don't eat breakfast," he says. "I just never understood American breakfast, you know? The idea of shoving 2,000 calories in your piehole at 8 in the morning, I just never got around to it." But that doesn't mean Lee, the four-time James Beard Award-nominated chef you might recognize from Top Chef or The Mind of a Chef, is anti-breakfast. "The only time I eat breakfast is when I’ve stayed up too late," he says, and even then, his definition of what is considered "breakfast" is pretty loose.
But that makes sense for a chef who's best known for blending Korean ingredients with American techniques and recipes, like his recipe for kimchi and collard greens. Lee's ability to combine the two so seamlessly is part of the reason he's partnered with Bibigo to help the Korean food brand expand its reach in the American market. Since we met at KCON 2017 NY, a two-day convention celebrating Korean culture, it only makes sense that I asked chef Lee about why Korean food has become so popular, and, of course, how to eat Korean food for breakfast.
Extra Crispy: So what did you eat for breakfast growing up?
Edward Lee: Like a bowl of cereal or a Kit-Kat and head out the door. But Korean breakfasts are not really indistinguishable from lunch. It’s rice and tofu and cakes and stuff.
You mentioned that when you were a kid, you never would’ve expected there to be a convention about Korean culture like this or this love around Korean food. So how has the perception of Korean food changed over the course of your career or even your lifetime?
It’s changed dramatically. I distinctly remember being a young chef in New York and working in restaurants—and we work late, right? And probably have a couple of drinks after shift, and so at 2 in the morning, when you’re ready to call it a night, what do you do? If you want a bite to eat, you can go get a hot dog or you can get a fast food burger, go to a late-night diner. There was always a Korean guy in every kitchen, you know? And they’re like, “Well, if you want to go to K-Town, they’re open 24 hours and at least you’re getting a restaurant-quality meal.”
We would take a bunch of guys and every one of them was a chef and every one of them, it was the first time they’d eaten Korean food, and for every one of them, they were like, “This is really good.” There was a moment when I was like [snaps his fingers], something’s going to happen with this. Because you don’t have that without influence. Chefs are sponges, they absorb information.
I don’t think it’s a surprise that Korean food exploded in New York, LA, which were the two places... where Korean restaurants were open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; where late-night chefs could go and dine. And I think, in some way, that had a huge influence on how we look at Korean food. Because these chefs all grew up to open their own restaurants, and they all became influencers, and they all grew up going, “Man, I loved Korean food when I was cooking.” So it just becomes a part of their vernacular at some point.
And I loved your point on the panel that it’s not Korean immigrants opening up their own kitchens that’s driving this interest in Korean food. It’s Korean ingredients infiltrating into kitchens, so what are some of the most clever or unique uses of Korean ingredients that you’ve seen recently?
There’s one recipe that I use all the time, which I call mine, but I actually stole from Jamie Bissonnette, and he did a gochujang Romesco. It was so good, I literally was like, “I’m going to steal that,” and I did and I use it, and I’m very unapologetic about it because I think he’s stolen stuff from me, too.
Not to plug myself too much, but we put gochujang in our pimento cheese [at 610 Magnolia, in Louisville, Kentucky]. I don’t say it. But all these true, blue-blooded Southerners will try my pimento cheese, and they’re like, “That’s really good. Something different in that.” And I’m like, yeah, it’s the gochujang. It’s a little bit, but it definitely makes a difference.
If you had to use Korean ingredients in breakfast—
I wouldn’t even know the first thing to do. No, because I’ll eat eggs and stuff, I just don’t eat them at 8 a.m. But scrambling eggs with doenjang [a Korean, fermented soybean paste] is fantastic. Just mix the doenjang into the eggs while you’re whipping them, and sort of do a soft scramble with that. It’s fantastic. There’s a childhood dish that I used to eat a lot, and it’s kind of breakfast-y. But you just take a hot bowl of steamed rice, crack a raw egg in there, quite a bit of soy sauce, and a pad of butter. And just kind of mash it up, so the egg almost gets cooked by the steamed rice, but it’s not like a risotto. The egg is still raw. It’s really gummy, and there’s just something about it. Even today, I’ll have it every now and then. It’s just like a childhood thing. It’s stringy and kind of nasty.
Yeah, yeah. But it’s so good. It’s one of those childhood things. I’ve given it to people, and they’re like, “Damn, this is really good.” And it’s just four ingredients.
I’m half-Korean, and my mom used to make that for me when I was growing up too, but never with the butter.
The butter kind of brings it all together.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.