Chef Edward Lee’s ‘Buttermilk Graffiti’ explores America’s diverse foodways

Cover of book of the week “Buttermilk Graffiti” by Edward Lee.
(Ken Goodman / Artisan)

Sometimes an excellent book takes a while to travel to the top of your bedside stack. Sometimes it helps if you need a polla a la brasa recipe, or if the book wins a fancy award. Which chef Edward Lee’s second book “Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-pot Cuisine,” just did, taking home a James Beard Award in the writing category last month.

Even if you don’t live and eat in Louisville, Ky., where Lee owns and operates three restaurants, you might have heard of the chef by now. The Brooklyn-born, Korean American chef appeared on the ninth season of “Top Chef” and third season of Anthony Bourdain’s “The Mind of a Chef,” toured the country not too long ago for his debut book “Smoke and Pickles,” and hosted a documentary called “Fermented.”


“Buttermilk Graffiti” is not a traditional cookbook so much as a travelogue that comes with a few recipes. The book is billed as “narrative nonfiction,” which is a nicely prosaic way of fitting it on your shelf. Imagine the genre of the cooking travel show, which was pretty much invented by the late Bourdain, but written down on the page.

What this means is that you have to use your imagination rather than look on the screen — the book doesn’t even come with pictures. So Lee’s travels around America, divided into 16 chapters that cover the culinary landscape from Dearborn, Mich., to Miami to Clarksdale, Miss., to Wisconsin to the Gulf Coast, among other locations, do not come with visual aids, nor do the recipes that come at the end of each chapter, 40 in total. Lee wants you to read — and to think about what he’s writing about, rather than looking at pictures — and come to your own conclusions.

“Buttermilk Graffiti” is thus a nicely old-fashioned book for this short-attention-span, visually dependent era: your chef as Kerouac, driving across the country and scribbling down notes on kitchen tables and restaurant counters. Lee’s project is endearingly haphazard, as he includes the inclement weather that derails one adventure, as well as the disinclination of some of his would-be subjects to talk to him at all. By embedding the frustrations that come with, well, normal life into his prose, Lee gives us a story that isn’t just another celebrity chef hitting the road.

Full cover of book “Buttermilk Graffiti” by Edward Lee.
(Ken Goodman / Artisan)

Lee chronicles his journey, the great meals in out-of-the-way places, the interesting folks and food — but also the casual surprise of what he finds, as he does at a waffle joint in Alabama: “I wish I hadn’t found this intimacy sitting in a chain restaurant next to a Shell station and across from a McDonald’s. But maybe this is the culture as it stands right now in America.”

As he travels and eats and writes, Lee’s experiences accumulate into the melting pot that he’s looking for, but maybe not the way either he — or we — expected it to happen. “Maybe part of being American,” he writes later, in the midst of a chapter about learning how to cook Moroccan food in Westport, Conn., “is releasing the anchor that we have to our heritage so we can drift directionless into the unknown waters of identity.”

The notion of authenticity, such a catchword in today’s food culture, isn’t a goal or even a useful term as much as it is a kind of red herring. So Lee — Korean by heritage, Brooklynese by birth, a Southerner by choice — stamps the recipes he picks up along his travels with his own imprint.

After a trip through soul food kitchens, salt-roasted sweet potatoes get paired with kalbi butter. Fried pork chops from Appalachia are matched with miso creamed corn and pickle juice gravy. And Lee’s version of the Peruvian chicken dish pollo a la brasa uses not chiles from South America but the Korean chile paste gochujang. This is not cultural appropriation; rather it’s a kind of potluck dinner in which everyone is welcome at the table.

Pollo a la brasa and green aji sauce from “Buttermilk Graffiti” by Edward Lee.
(Dimity Jones)

Pollo a la Brasa

About 1 ½ hours, plus overnight marinating time. Serves 2 to 3 as a main course.

  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons gochujang (Korean red chile paste)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice of 3 limes
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked hot paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 whole chicken (about 2 ½ pounds, preferably organic)
  • Green Aji Sauce (see recipe below), for serving

1. In a food processor, combine the soy sauce, gochujang, olive oil, lime juice, garlic, ginger, cumin, paprika, oregano, rosemary, salt and pepper, and purée until smooth.

2. Place the chicken in a large casserole dish. Using your finger, loosen the skin of the chicken over the breasts and thighs. Rub some of the marinade under the skin, then rub any remaining all over the whole chicken. Cover and refrigerate the chicken at least 8 hours or overnight.

3. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator 30 minutes before putting it in the oven. Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

4. Transfer the chicken to a roasting pan and roast for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue cooking the chicken until the skin is dark and caramelized, about 45 minutes. To test for doneness, insert a knife into the chicken where the thigh bone meets the backbone; if the juice runs clear, the chicken is ready. Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes before carving.

5. Serve the chicken with the green aji sauce on the side.

Green Aji Sauce

In a blender, combine 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup mayonnaise, 3 seeded and stemmed jalapeño peppers, 3 garlic cloves, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1 bunch cilantro, and purée until just smooth (be careful not to over-mix, or the sauce may break). Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use or up to 1 week. Makes about 1 cup sauce.

Note: Adapted from a recipe in “Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine” by Edward Lee.