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February 2014

The Charleston Profile:
Cuisine Comando
Written By: 
Jeff Allen
Photographs By: 
Peter Frank Edwards

Last December, a group of F&B pros gathered at The Grocery downtown—some returning home from as far off as Sonoma and points in between—to pay tribute to chef Frank Lee, a culinary master and mentor, a friend and philosopher who has helped shape a generation of cooks


Frank Lee never wanted to be a chef. He thought he’d go to college and become a doctor or psychologist, the sort of job people considered “respectable” in the Columbia, South Carolina, of the mid-1970s. Perhaps it was his long hair, revolutionary politics, or devout vegetarianism. Or maybe it was his founding involvement in the whole foods co-op and restaurant 221 Pickens Street—a small shop in a backwater capital of the South that aimed to save the world—and driving a converted VW bus to a connection at the State Farmers Market to pick up vegetables. But his plans for a white-collar vocation never came to pass. He found himself a cook.

Already in those days, Frank was a maverick, selling chickpeas and TVP (textured vegetable protein) at Pickens Street. “I didn’t know any better,” he remembers. “But one day I looked at myself and thought, ‘I better get serious about something, and I guess I’m a cook.’ So I got serious about it.”  

On a blustery Monday night in December at chef Kevin Johnson’s The Grocery, it was easy to see how far Frank Lee has come. The lineup of chefs at the Wine + Food Festival’s Toast and Tribute to him represented a diaspora of influence that has traveled far afield. Graham Dailey (Peninsula Grill), Jacques Larson (Wild Olive), Chris Stewart (The Glass Onion), Anthony Gray (Bacon Bros. Public House), Suzanne Hagins (Horse & Plow), and Chris Newsome (Ollie Irene)—the list goes on. That he taught them all to cook testifies to his influence on our cuisine. His mentors, Yannick Cam and Malcolm Hudson, also manned the stoves, and the sold-out crowd included friends, colleagues, and admirers. Chef Mike Lata sat a table over, Indigo Road restaurant group partner Steve Palmer a few tables beyond; they paid their own money to give tribute to a man who his peers respect as the most accomplished chef in town. Former Charleston Grill chef and friend Bob Waggoner entertained all with jokes and remembrances.

And there was the food—courses of foie gras-stuffed mushrooms and “Extra Maverick Pad Thai,” duck leg confit and local fish served with sprightly vinaigrette—“light and bright” as Lee calls it. They gathered to celebrate a venerable man and testify to the many lives that Lee helped to shape. But the content of Frank Lee is not exhausted in sound bites and a raised glass. He represents the soul of a kitchen transformed into a philosophy for living the good life. As the night wore on and glasses emptied, the extended family of Frank Lee began to relate his story.

A Man of the Kitchen
“The first time I ever saw him he was this little wiry, crazy guy bouncing around in a box of a kitchen out at Wild Dunes, and you could see his passion, the way he carried himself,” says Donald Barickman, formerly of Magnolias and now a chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston. Lee is a man who knows his kitchen the way a captain understands his boat. He knows every pot and pan. He can tell you where he bought them, where he purchased the mixers, and where he found the parts to fix the mixers. They are at least 50 years old. He prefers military surplus and industrial strength; his stock pots saw duty in the Korean War. It’s all scrubbed and shined regularly. Every piece and part has a defined location. The stoves are dismantled, sometimes with screwdrivers, and cleaned until they look new. At Slightly North of Broad (SNOB), which Lee has helmed for 20 years, one of the first things that new cooks notice is that Lee himself can be found scrubbing the ventilation hoods after service on a Saturday night. In his world, the system defines status, not the job at hand.

His practice developed over a lifetime of service—first at Hudson’s in Columbia, where his mentor Malcolm Hudson introduced him to fine dining and French culture, then at Wild Dunes, where he learned the workings of a larger, more industrial operation of banquets and scaled management. He went off to Chicago and eventually landed at Le Pavillon, Yannick Cam’s Washington, D.C., temple of French cuisine. A second stint in Charleston interrupted by Hurricane Hugo found him working the line at Restaurant Million. Then he met Dick Elliot.

“I will not work in a restaurant called Slightly North of Broad,” Lee declared. “It’s stupid!” Dick Elliot and general manager David Marconi were locked in a car, with Frank on the phone. As the project coalesced, naming the new restaurant became top priority. Elliot had maneuvered the car to the side of the road, locked the doors, and decided that no one would get out until the name had been chosen. There would also be battles over Lee’s desire for a fountain in the space and the layout of the bar. When the magnificent brick arch that frames the rear of SNOB was revealed during renovations, he fumed at the resultant size of the galley. “How the hell can I cook in a 750-square-foot kitchen?” he demanded. But cook he did.

“He was the real deal,” says Elliot. “He didn’t just talk about freshness and local sources—he did it. And this was in 1992 before such things were so popular.” Lee made it a habit to go to The Vegetable Bin every morning to get the day’s produce, because that was the ideal he inherited from French culture. He exhibits a deep caring about the food itself, something that Elliot sees as an integral contribution. Elliot says that Lee joins himself and Marconi to serve as the “third leg of a three-legged stool” that supports the Maverick group, explaining, “It was knowing exactly where the food came from, exactly how you used every single piece of it. Frank helped us understand how critical that was.”

The collaboration brought success, and SNOB now ranks as one of the great Charleston restaurants, a progenitor of much that came afterwards. It is a place of firsts. They were the first to really work with local farmers, to source fish and shellfish that others eschewed. SNOB became the go-to place for shad roe or fresh local butter beans. French method and sensibilities drove his culinary technique but also instructed him to interpret the region and its local foods through that lens—something for which he takes no credit: “No one here invented local sourcing, or how to make sauces, or the cutting of steaks, or getting out and knowing the farmer. Somebody taught you.”

“It’s a Craft, Not an Art”
To work in Lee’s kitchen, or even enter it, requires a certain humility. There are no stars, not even Lee. He won’t admit hubris into the space. To Joe Palma—who worked on the line at SNOB for Lee, went on to stints at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in New York and Westend Bistro in D.C., and returned to Charleston as executive chef at High Cotton—“he introduced himself as Frank, not as ‘chef.’” Elliot continues, “Frank is aware of his image and publicity, but the thing that is important is that he hasn’t let his ego drive him to be things that he is not. He is genuine.” That’s a rarity in the celebrity-driven restaurant culture of today.

The kitchen, like everything in the philosophy of Frank Lee, runs on a system, and Lee’s kitchen is a boot camp of sorts. It has evolved to be a “home for wayward boys (and girls),” as he jokingly calls it. “He used to be a typical French tyrant,” Elliot recounts, “but he’s recognized that young people want to learn, that they want to collaborate. He used to measure success at the level of the restaurant, but now he measures success in young lives affected.”
A cook often begins washing dishes, from there moving around the kitchen to learn the cooking stations and the defining role of the mise en place, which exists in every modern restaurant, if perhaps not as fundamentally as at SNOB. Meaning “putting in place,” the concept is at the center of Lee’s philosophy. “I was cooking at Wild Dunes, doing these huge dinners and banquets and managing a tremendous amount of corporate-type food, and after awhile I just had this realization that if I had my mise en place prepared then I could do anything,” he explains. “Whether it’s in life or a kitchen, if you have your mise en place right, then you are always 10 or 20 minutes from a finished dish. It’s all about the rhythm of the mise en place.”  

He prides himself on the number of accomplished chefs his system has produced. He looks at the transference of knowledge and passing down of tradition as the continuation of an ancient guild, one he found during his time in France and considers his obligation to continue in America. “We’re seeing a resurgent interest in trades, and I think that’s a great development,” he says while relating the promise of institutions like Trident Technical College. “Learning a trade in school should be as important as becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief. People are coming out of school these days with these great degrees and then finding out that their piece of paper and 50 cents won’t buy them a cup of coffee.”

“That’s his attitude,” chef Robert Berry says. “It’s a craft, not an art.”

 Finding Balance
It takes about 10 minutes of conversation to realize that Frank Lee is steeped in Eastern philosophy. “Maybe it was all that yoga back in the ’70s,” he retorts. After mise en place, he pines for balance.

He finds beauty in the everyday and uses everything that comes through the kitchen. He abhors waste, even challenging his cooks to reduce how many towels they use in a day—the entire lesson is really one of economy and scale. Marconi interprets it as a relationship of respect: “For Frank, if it’s worth bringing in the kitchen, then it’s worth paying respect to.” He’s a man who winces at monikers and recoils at the idea that his food might be labeled as “Southern” or “French.” “I don’t know,” Lee complains as he has a chef rattle off one of last night’s specials, “What the hell would you call that? Is it Southern? Is it French? Or is it just good damn food?”

This sense of balance brings respect. He professes respect for ingredients, but more so for the person sitting in the dining room. “Those folks sitting out there give us the only recognition needed,” he responds when asked about fame. “If you satisfy each customer, then the rest sort of just follows.” He once quit drinking for five years because he felt that alcohol and drugs were outsized dangers in the culinary world and he wanted to remain at the top of his game. He eats meat now because Malcom Hudson told him he couldn’t cook if he couldn’t taste all the food. He believes that cooks shouldn’t work more than about 55 hours a week, since balancing health and family makes for a more successful career. A few years ago, he felt that the emphasis on Southern was turning towards a heavy hand in a culture of lard and grits, so began another exploration for balance. One of the cooks pasted the words “light and bright” above the kitchen pass as a reminder of the new system and its protocol of thought.

Lee relayed all of this during a private chat after the tribute dinner to learn more about his vision, his core motivation. He’s clearly a man grown well beyond the simple proffering of food. “I want to pass the vision on so that they bring it into themselves,” he says. “Back in my younger days, I used to think that systems were the root of all evil, that they were the enemy of creativity. But I have come to learn that you have to have systems to provide the framework where creativity can happen. You can’t have style until you conquer fundamentals. I’m convinced that this is why an army marches. They have to do it the same way, in time, over and over, so that they can follow directions without veering from the path. That’s their system.”  

In Lee’s kitchen, you learn life lessons through the production of great food. You march to the rhythm of mise en place and learn your fundamentals, and then he gives you the wings to fly, where you innovate and move into the higher order of creativity. When asked why, Lee produced a mantra without hesitation: “Our core mission is to produce superior human beings.”

 




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