When James Beard Award-winning authors Matt and Ted Lee talk about their hometown of Charleston, S.C., there's an unmistakable air of reverence in their voices.
"It's hard to separate the passion (for the food) from having grown up there, having grown up in a place where food is part of life. You can't really shake it," says Ted Lee. "We often say we didn't choose it; it chose us."
So it's a natural progression that, for their third cookbook, the brothers focus specifically on the food that's served as the inspiration for their culinary careers. The final product, "The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen" (Clarkson Potter, $35), is a visually stunning compilation of 100 recipes characteristic of the Holy City, its people and traditions.
The Lee brothers will make their way to Chicago on April 18 to promote their new cookbook with a dinner at Big Jones, 5374 N. Clark St. In anticipation of the event, we spoke with the brothers about their hometown, its cuisine and why the find it so inspiring.
(Edited for clarity and space.)
Q: This book focuses specifically on Charleston as opposed to the all-encompassing book "Southern Cooking." What’s the difference?
Matt: What's so unique, and what we try to reinforce outside of the South is that Charleston is on the Atlantic Ocean. It's really a collection of islands. The whole area is just riddled with rivers and tributaries and creeks. So the cuisine is all about seafood — shellfish, oysters, crab, fish, shark, critters that come out of the sea. It's the same reason that, traditionally, Charleston is a bad place to raise cattle, pig or other hoofed animals. The ground is marshy, so poultry is the other big thing — chicken, duck, geese, guinea fowl — and game birds, like quail, pheasant and dove. The first thing I would tell people is that if you're eating in a Charleston kitchen, get ready for some seafood and poultry.
Q: Peppered throughout this book are little excerpts about people, traditions and cookbooks that you say elevated the city as a food destination. Why include those little blurbs?
Ted: The interesting thing about Charleston being a food destination is that it wasn't until relatively recently that the city had many restaurants at all. Really, it was a home-cooking town. We're trying to tie that into the current context of it being a place people go to eat. We wanted to add to this discussion, to explain how home-cooking, which differs from restaurant cooking, is distinct and has been inspiring people in the area for a long time, and how it can still be relevant.
Q: When you were selecting the recipes for this book, what were your qualifiers for inclusion?
Ted: We were really following our noses. Obviously, we did the Charleston icons — Huguenot torte, shrimp and grits, Wentworth Street crab meat, she-crab soup — these are totemic dishes in the city. You've got to do them. Beyond that, there are different types of recipes that appear in the book. Some are tributes to Charleston institutions. Henry's cheese cpread is to honor a restaurant that closed when we were kids, but we'd gone enough times to remember it. Some of the recipes come out of the seasons, like the skillet asparagus with grapefruit. It's a simple, seasonal recipe that romances the time of the year we're in right now.
Q: Any recipe recommendations from the book for those of us who don’t live in a coastal locale?
Matt: One dish is the rooster-less Faber's pilau. That's a great dish and so quintessentially Charleston. It involves cooking the chicken with the rice; the rice is infused with the fat and broth of the chicken. It's really just a great technique and a wonderful dish that's so typical of the city. Another is the boeuf a la mode. It's a dish from the mid-20th century that's in all the old cookbooks but is mostly out of fashion now but came as a recommendation from one of the home cooks we spoke with. The pan gravy that results is amazing; there’s something about the allspice and white onion with the vinegar.
Q: What do you think it is about Charleston cooking specifically that has enraptured you and served as your inspiration for your career path?
Ted: The key was moving to Charleston at such a young age, where when we arrived, what was most understandably different was the food. All of our friends already knew where the mulberry trees where and when to pick them; they knew how to crab and shrimp. Discovering that at the age we did, our friends just did that stuff, and to us it was incredible and new and instilled in us a sense of wonder about Charleston food that we still have.
Tickets for the event at Big Jones are $100. For more information or to make a reservation, call 773-275-5725 or visit bigjoneschicago.com.