Chef Edward Lee: 5 surprising lessons about storytelling from a top chef


Chef Edward Lee takes a seat and slides a box of cigars across the table. We’ve barely shaken hands and already he is telling me a story.

Not about himself, mind you, but about the cigars and the man who makes them.

This, perhaps is the best and most important lesson on storytelling that Chef Lee -- Ed -- has to offer: that the best stories are really about people.

That things -- dishes, drinks, ingredients, even tobacco -- all have people behind them. And where there are people, there are stories.

I tell him why we’re here: that I’m in Louisville to teach personal storytelling as a means to greater creativity. I was excited to eat at his restaurant, 610 Magnolia, and while here I was hoping to get his take on storytelling, and the role of stories in his life and work.

Lee is game, but first things first: bourbon is poured.

We are in Kentucky, after all. He brought my husband and I something special from an artisanal distiller called Rabbit Hole. It’s a bourbon that tells a story -- natch.

Lee speaks quietly, humbly. At first he seems to be pushing my questions away gently, like he’s playing with food on his plate. "Oh, I don't know..." He'll say at first. He doesn’t consider himself an expert on the subject; doesn’t want to presume too much about his own expertise as a writer.

Yet he keeps talking, thoughtfully opening up new ideas and questions on the subject as he reflects. It becomes clear, as he empties his glass of bourbon, crunching the remaining ice, that indeed he has his own opinions, his own ideas, his own stories on the subject of storytelling.

In fact, he has a few ideas I have never heard before. Ideas that really could only have come from a chef.

A chef who’s a storyteller at heart.

Here are 5 lessons I learned about storytelling from Chef Lee.

1. Don’t try to prove yourself, just tell a story.

“When I’m served a dish,” says Lee, “I think: what’s the story this person is telling me? Sometimes the story is, ‘look how much technique I have’.”

On the other hand, a dish that tells a good story will reveal a cook’s talents without having to show them off.

"You know the person can make a sauce without them having to put that sauce on the plate."

That goes for other forms of storytelling, too. Like writing.

“Look at David Sedaris. I’ve heard people say, ‘my Grandfather could write that.’ But your Grandfather didn’t write that, and couldn’t.”  Because, Lee points out, that legendary humourist David Sedaris knows how to use -- or not use -- every single word. The end result feels simple. But only because of his skill as a storyteller.

Takeaway: It’s natural to want to put yourself -- your skill, your talent -- in the forefront of your story. Don’t do it. Think about the story you really want to tell, and tell it as well as you can. Let your story speak for itself.

2. Balance is everything.

Chefs know that cooking is all about balance.

A great dish balances the five flavour profiles: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami.

Lee explains that as a chef, when you begin to experiment with a dish, you get it all down on the plate: all the ideas you’re excited about, all the ingredients and flavours.

You start from a place of abundance, maybe even a little excess.

Then you edit. “You say to yourself, ‘I have lemon for acid, do I really need that cranberry?’”

The same is true for writing. Lee explains that he might write 30 pages about a subject, but then think, “who gives a shit?”.

He ruthlessly questions what really needs to be said. In the end, he edits it down to one simple metaphor that says everything he really needs to say.

Takeaway: Look for the balance in your own work. Is it a little on the salty side? Try to add a little sweetness. Or vice versa. Remove what isn't necessary. Make sure everything belongs on the plate -- or on the page.

3. Go for more than the money shot.

Inevitably, the phrase ‘food porn’ comes up.

“Food porn,” says Lee, “is an accurate description”.

He’s referring to the society’s current obsession with food images/plating: hedonistic, lust-worthy, over-the-top pictures designed to make you drool. The stuff that foodie Instagram accounts are made of.

If you go deeper and ask "what’s the story behind this," Lee explains, you will find much more more. “You will find that the story is really about people.”

Takeaway: It’s easy to fill a page (or a Facebook status for that matter) with an emotional outburst, or a link-baity headline. But Lee’s comments present us with a worthy challenge: to dig a little deeper and explore the people behind your stories. What do they have to say?

4. Listen.

In case you can’t already tell, for Lee, food and stories are all about people.

I ask him about his writing process and he says,

“I travel.

I talk to people.

I listen.”

These stories show up in his writing and in the food he creates.

Of course, he is quick to point out that he is not alone. “This is a collaboration.” A kitchen is all about teamwork, listening to each other’s ideas.

On a literal level, listening also means using your senses and paying attention. One of the desserts we are eating is about October leaves. Lee explains how it was made to remind us not just of the colours, but of the sound -- the crunch of the leaves.

Takeaway: Pay attention. Seek out other people's stories and listen to what they have to say. When you tune into your senses and listen to the people around you, that is how you bring your stories to life.

5. Be generous.

Lee didn’t talk about this one, but he demonstrated it. By sitting down with us for an hour and a half. Making time for a thoughtful conversation in what I am sure is a crazy schedule.

By buying us bourbon. Extending that cigar box across the table. “Take one.”

And most importantly, by telling us stories.

We sat and it got late.

Like cooking, there is a generosity to storytelling. What a lovely thing to take our time, to let our stories have room to breathe, like wine.

Be generous with your stories, indulgent even. Take your time with them.

Share them like they’re gifts to give away.

Camille DePutter