As a teenager, Christopher Lee became fascinated with food. "I always knew that I wanted to be a chef. In high school, I used to ditch classes just to watch cooking shows on TV."
He then took charge of the kitchen at Striped Bass in Philadelphia, experimenting on New American cuisine with a farm-to-table sensibility and a focus on presentation.
He must have been doing something right, because he caught the eye of the James Beard Foundation, which named him the 2005 "Rising Star Chef of the Year." The next year, he was named one of Food & Wine's "Top Ten Best New Chefs" in the nation. Perhaps looking for a change of scenery or seeking a new challenge, Lee returned to New York and earned two Michelin stars for Gilt.
All of these accolades sound pretty impressive, but maybe more impressive is the fact that Lee earned an unprecedented 29 food rating from Zagat, the highest for NYC, while manning the kitchen at Aureole in 2009.
And now Lee has entered paradise. He currently hangs his toque at Eden in South Beach.
New Times: What do you think attracted you to cooking at the age of 14?
Christopher Lee: I was an active kid, into sports, and usually unable to sit still. But cooking shows had always captivated me, completely held my attention. I was seriously into Julia Child, Wok With Yan, and Great Chefs. It was definitely a dorky thing for a 14-year-old to hog the TV from his brother and sister to watch Julia Child slamming chickens around on the counter. But I loved it.
Describe your take on New American cuisine.
American cuisine allows us to use flavors from around the world while using modern and classical techniques with new flavor combinations. To me it means "no rules." I'm a New Yorker, I'm able to eat any ethnicity of food imaginable and re-create it, be influenced by it, and still hold true to serving New American cuisine.
How did it feel to be named "Rising Star Chef of the Year" by the James Beard Foundation?
Getting a James Beard Award was a lifetime accomplishment for me. But the Rising Star award was special because it recognized that I had potential, which reassured me that all the hard work was paying off.
You've run the kitchen in cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New York. What city has the most difficult diners to impress?
New York, with Miami being a close second. New York is a city where everyone eats out, usually because the average kitchen is too small to cook in -- the smoke detector goes off when you make a Hot Pocket -- and no one's got time to make dinner. Plus they're in a city with 19,000 restaurants, so it's an incredible challenge to stand out. But when it comes down to it, Miami has proven to have its own challenges. There are people here from all over the world, and it is definitely a town where everyone loves to go out. It's a place that thrives with tourism but still has such a strong local community. Appealing to such a variety of cultured people is always a challenge.
What do you hope to bring to Miami with Eden?
The goal was to develop an American bistro at Eden -- to create a menu and an experience that a large demographic can enjoy. Eden brings fun to food and dining and allows me to do a more casual type of cuisine. It's my chance to get away from fine dining and make food that tastes great, with strong flavors, in an entertaining environment.
What regional advantages does Miami have in terms of ingredients?
It was hard to get used to the seasonality of South Florida; it is opposite from up north. Getting great tomatoes in the winter is awesome. And the citrus is better in Florida than anywhere else in the world.
Is there an ingredient that you couldn't manage living without?
What's in your freezer at home right now?
Hot Pockets, chicken potpies, and ice cream.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your career?
Finding the secret to motivate cooks that don't make large salaries and pushing them to do their best every night in such a high-pressure environment.
Are you excited about bringing your talents to Miami?
I love Miami; I consider it a home away from home. It has been a challenge, but I am not going anywhere.
Do you have a guilty pleasure when it comes to food?
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Ha-ha, absolutely! Big Macs and Sour Patch Kids. I'm known to have a bowl of candy on the pass when I'm working at the restaurant.