Lee would tell you he’s worked to develop that small army of people into human beings who are kind and generous to others and who know how to focus on their work. They just happen to also become fine chefs.
“What we’re really teaching them is how to work, how to treat people,” said Lee, who is vice president for culinary development for Southern Maverick Kitchens and is often in the kitchen at the group’s oldest restaurant, Slightly North of Broad, affectionately called SNOB by its many fans.
“They have to know how to communicate,” he said. “We want them to develop a sense of urgency and know that you just really need to do your best.”
For the event, a number of chefs who had spent time in Lee’s kitchen returned to prepare a five-course dinner.
Those chefs include Anthony Gray of Bacon Bros. Public House (http://baconbrospublichouse.com/) in Greenville; Chris Newsome of Ollie and Irene in Birmingham, Ala.; and Sam Goinsalvos of Il Buco Alimentare in New York.
Among the Charleston chefs who participated are Chris Stewart of The Glass Onion, Kevin Johnson of The Grocery, Robert Berry of Indaco, Graham Dailey of Peninsula Grill, acques Larson of Wild Olive as well as Russ Moore, chef de cuisine at Slightly North of Broad.
And those are only a few of the chefs Lee has mentored.
Also participating was Malcolm Hudson of Columbia, a man Lee calls his mentor and spiritual guide.
Lee’s first experience in a restaurant kitchen was when he and three friends opened a vegetarian restaurant/natural foods co-op called 221 Pickens Street in Columbia in 1973. A career as a chef hadn’t really entered Lee’s mind yet. “Our main goal at Pickens Street was changing the world through vegetarianism,” he said.
Lee was a vegetarian for about six years until he got further along in his career and decided he needed to eat meat if he was going to serve it. But one influence of his 221 Pickens Street days remains: His restaurants always offer a vegetable plate.
It was after 221 Pickens Street closed that Lee met Hudson, who owned Hudson’s in Columbia, an upscale French restaurant where Lee was introduced to French nouvelle cuisine. In 1981, the two toured Europe, dining in fine restaurants.
“His influence is all over the menu at SNOB,” Lee said. “We call him the inoculator. He’s worked several stints as a cook at SNOB, two or three times, and was able to take some of these chefs to Europe and expose them to a new world.”
In 1992, he went to work at The Colony House, owned by Richard Elliott. The next year, Elliott invited Lee and David Marconi to open Slightly North of Broad, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month. Southern Maverick Kitchens also owns High Cotton Charleston, High Cotton Greenville, Old Village Post House in Mount Pleasant and Charleston Cooks stores in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville.
Slightly North of Broad is praised for its emphasis on local produce, meats and seafood. Long before eating local was a buzz phrase, bins of vegetables were on display in the kitchen. His combination of Southern ingredients and French techniques are what make the group’s restaurants maverick.
Actually, Lee said, it’s a small leap from French nouvelle cuisine to what he and his friends were trying to do at 221 Pickens years ago and what he is doing now at Southern Maverick restaurants. Eating local, emphasis on whole grains and avoiding saturated fats might have been radical ideas in the 1970s, but they’re mainstream concepts today. French nouvelle cuisine has its roots in and focuses on eating seasonal and local.
The chefs who participated in the tribute to Lee – and so many others throughout the area that were “all grown from eggs,” according to Lee – may talk about the kitchen skills he taught them. But Lee said his only real culinary tip to those he mentors is to taste everything they cook.
“Do that every day and you will develop a palate,” he said. “You’d be surprised how hard it is to get people to do that.”