If you’ve seen a picture of Matt and Ted Lee recently, there’s a good chance they were riding skateboards in coat and tie. That’s their style in a nutshell: polished with a flair for exploration and a touch of levity.
Their new cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, released in March, is an extension of the refreshingly nerdy yet refined image they project. It could be the best of the three they’ve published.
The book is a colloquial, accessible and deeply researched work that exhibits reverence and delight for the recipes it presents. The book includes firsthand accounts and vintage recipes as well as the brothers’ original creations.
The Lee Brothers have been culinary ambassadors for Charleston and the South at least since their first cookbook, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, won a James Beard Award in 2007. In preparation for their visit to Malaprop’s on Monday, April 1, at 7 p.m., Matt and Ted spoke with Xpress about the relationship between Asheville and Charleston, the current trendiness of Southern food and the merits of a personal approach to writing and cooking.
Mountain Xpress: Have you spent much time in Asheville?
Ted Lee: Dating back to the time when we were kids in Charleston, we went to camp in Zirconia, N.C., which is more towards the Saluda area. We'd always stop in Asheville, and we went to the Biltmore Estate as kids.
We continued our relationship with Asheville as young food writers when we were visiting in the mid-’90s. We have a friend who lived there, Ronni Lundy, and she was a big Asheville foodster. The brother of a chef friend of ours in Charleston, Robert Stehling [of Hominy Grill], is John Stehling of Early Girl Eatery. We were turned on to Early Girl really early, and the scene there has grown up just as it has in Charleston, and it's been fun to watch it.
It's really interesting, the growth that Asheville and Charleston have experienced at almost exactly the same time, as a lot of Southern cities have. But a particular similarity is the way the economies are driven by hospitality and tourism.
Ted: Right. Right, right.
How does food fit into that growth?
I think food is the natural extension of that. I think more and more people across the country are traveling to eat and to experience different flavors and cultures. I think the food media is to credit for that. Food travel shows have come such a long way in the last decade. It's catching.
What seems exciting to me, certainly from a restaurant perspective, if you look at Asheville and Charleston, there's a similar energy there. Similar chefs who are doing cool avant-garde stuff like at The Admiral, and they're also doing straight-up, more traditional Southern like Early Girl.
Your new book seems to be very deliberate in the way you discuss Southern food, like you know you're representing the food to the country and crafting a dialogue about it. Was that something you thought about?
Ted: Absolutely. That's something that's been in our makeup for a long time. As the introduction explains, we grew up in Charleston. We learned to cook there. We metabolized the awesome culinary culture of the late '70s, '80s, '90s to today. But we weren't born there. The notion of interpreting Charleston's culinary mojo for a national audience is very much part of what we wanted to do. …
I think we do have a more open and holistic view of Charleston's culinary culture. I don't think we're unique in that. I think there are many people: Practitioners, chefs, thinkers and residents of Charleston who think the way we do. But there are some who think maybe there's one time in history that has more primacy or urgency or significance in Charleston's culinary history, and we don't believe that.
We believe that every era in Charleston's amazing history, from the Native Americans to the present, is worthwhile for study, for cooking, for inspiration, and we have to view Charleston — whether it's home cooking or the restaurant scene — as a continuum that's ever on the increase. …
We feel like there really is no heyday. The heyday started with the Native Americans roasting oysters on James Island, and we still roast oysters on James Island. Everything in between is awesomely interesting. When you really start exploring and digging into the stories, what emerges is the richest story ever told.
Do you think people usually see Southern food as fractured?
Matt: There is that tendency in Southern cooking, because it is a regional cuisine, to really be about the best and the favorite and the this-not-that-ness of Southern cooking. There are so many diverse regions from place to place.
This is classic: Last night, I was at an event, and I was asked, “What is your favorite country ham? What's the best.”
I was like, “That's a really great question,” because I've been experiencing more of the country ham tasting plate at restaurants. …“Why not make all of them your favorite? They're very different. Why choose a favorite?”
He was like, “No, tell me what's your favorite. What's the best?” This was a guy from Columbia who happened to be attending this event.
I think that's distinctly Southern: The wanting to really specify, like, “Where is the best ham and whose smokehouse does it come from?” Maybe what betrays my having been born in New York City and having moved to Charleston when I was 7 is my resistance to wanting to choose one that's the right one, that's the best one.
If you didn't have to choose, why would you? There's so much out there.
In your new book, you avoid some terms, like “New Southern,” that are very popular right now. You talk about how writing the book has been an experience of learning and that you are “seeing something from the past in a new light,” and you also talk about “evok[ing] Charleston as it is today and as it may have been while remaining fresh and relevant.” I think those are both really interesting ideas.
Ted: What we're saying is we're telling the story of our Charleston kitchen, the stories that inspire us. The stories that we tell have been selected. It's not the story of everyone in Charleston. It's the story of friends and characters we've interacted with. This isn't The Definitive Charleston Kitchen.
I think there is a tendency in restaurants to fall into a particular way of talking about food for marketing purposes. You have to plant your flag.
Matt: They have a commercial imperative, obviously.
Do you think framing Southern food in a particular way can be limiting?
Ted: Sure, if you choose to make it so.
I'm thinking about the intense national media attention that Southern food has gotten recently. … Do you think there are any challenges that Southern food faces because of the attention?
Matt: Southern food stands up to the twisted scrutiny of all sorts of media people. The frame that The Today Show brings to Southern food when they come down here to tape The Morning Show, and the frame that bon appétit magazine brings down, or the frame that a tourist couple from Des Moines, Iowa, brings to their experience of Southern food is going to be different. You have to ask them.
But the great thing is that Southern food is so much about the ingredients and the raw materials that it usually withstands even the most prejudiced scrutiny, and that's why restaurateurs are so happy to be able just to show, not tell, and let them taste and experience firsthand and educate people that way. For us to be able to articulate and put a fine point on what it is about Southern food in our world that we think is relevant and tasty and worth exploring in the home kitchen, wherever you live.
Is there anything else you would like to tell an Asheville audience?
Ted: This probably happens a lot in Asheville too: The coverage in the media is so much about the restaurants of the present day. Part of the inspiration for writing the book is to talk about Charleston home-cooking traditions. As a visitor coming to Charleston, it's more of a challenge to find that angle. You can process it through the lens of today's restaurants, but it's kind of fun to talk about today's home-cooking traditions, because that's kind of where the culinary culture started. It wasn't a huge restaurant town until recently.
Matt: There are also specific ingredients that are experienced only in the home setting, the more foraged ingredients, like chainey briar. It's this smilax vine. It's a native weed that grows up in the sand dunes. It's delicious. Home cooks know, plenty of them, that it's edible and wild harvested. It's almost unheard of in a restaurant setting because it's uncultivatable. … Similarly, wild game. … Those are proteins that you won't find in a restaurant because they're not permitted to serve them, but you will find them on dinner tables in Charleston on a nightly basis.
What you're saying about home cooks has a really interesting parallel in the way you designed your book, the way you designed it to be your take on Charleston. The idea that maybe Southern food is something that's inherently subjective, that happens in your home and resonates with your own experience.
Matt: Yeah, the meaning of food is something that's subjective wherever you happen to be, and we all relate to it, which is the great thing. It's why we've chosen this life over other career paths. Wherever you go in this world, people can relate to food. They may take away different meanings from it, but we all share that.