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Louisville chef Edward Lee invited to cook White House state dinner

Chef Edward Lee wears a black t-shirt with the word "oink" written on it.
610 Magnolia
Chef Edward Lee

Louisville chef and restaurateur Edward Lee is a guest chef at the White House kitchen. He’s creating the menu for a state dinner to honor the leader of South Korea.

State dinners at the White House are used to welcome and honor visiting international heads of government. Foreign leaders and their spouses are invited to have dinner with President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.

“It's a high-stakes dinner, probably the biggest thing that I've done in my career, because it's not just VIPs, it's minutes, there's diplomacy involved here,” Lee said.

Lee said he didn’t know he was on a short-list of chef’s to cook a state dinner, and it took a while for the moment to sink in.

“At first it didn't quite settle in and then I started telling my friends and my family and everyone was, you know, overreacting and panicking,” Lee said. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is something big’.”

Lee is cooking for South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and first lady Kim Keon Hee to celebrate 70 years of alliance between the two nations.

For Lee, who is Korean-American, the dinner recognizing the partnership between South Korea and the United States has a personal meaning.

“It's really because of that alliance, after the Korean War, where my parents immigrated to America and, and I have this life and all these opportunities and, you know, my identity,” Lee said.

When creating his menu for the dinner, Lee wanted to bring together traditional U.S. dishes with Korean additions.

“I just wanted to show how Korean flavors and American dishes merge together and blend together very naturally, and very deliciously,” Lee said. “To me, that story also reflects the story of American and South Korean diplomacy, where, you know, the two nations have collaborated for so many years.”

The menu includes an appetizer of Maryland crab cakes with gochujang vinaigrette, a main course of beef short rib with soy sauce and kimchi puree and for dessert Lee has planned an “elevated bananas split” with caramel made from a fermented soybean called doenjang.

“Food is about people, it's about culture, it's about love,” Lee said. “I am part Korean, and I am part New York and I am part Kentucky and I am part of all these things.”

The White House state dinner isn’t Lee’s only big event this week. He is opening a new Korean BBQ restaurant in Louisville called Nami on May 2.

“I would not have scheduled it this way If it were up to me, but also it's been a really exciting week and honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way,” Lee said.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.