What it's like…

to win Iron Chef America

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The producers saw a feature we had in Gourmet about a year ago, and called me at the restaurant out of the blue a few weeks later. At first, I thought it was one of my friends pranking me, but once I got online and looked at the staff directory, I realized it was legit. I called my wife and Brook Smith, my business partner, and told them. We thought, “This is freaking awesome!” Then, panic set in.

The next month of my life was just stress. They don’t give you much time to prepare, or tell you much. Like most chefs, I get enough of food and cooking during the day, so I don’t watch the show that often. I spent a week watching back episodes online, then realized it was making me nuts, and decided to do what we do at the restaurant. I called some friends who had done it and asked for their advice. John Besh told me, “Just do what you do, and you’ll be fine.”

They give you a list of several possible secret ingredients, and you know one will be on the show, but you don’t find out until the last minute. My list had blue cheese, tongue and cheek, and a weird Hawaiian fish on it. We got tongue and cheek for the show. I was so glad it wasn’t the fish, because I had never cooked it before, and we couldn’t order it at the restaurant to try it because it was out of season. But I like tongue. Growing up Korean, I’ve eaten that stuff before, and when I was in France, we ate it all the time. It was tough because those ingredients require a long cooking time, but I was excited about it.

We had to buy pressure cookers and learn how to use them. I had never used one before, but now we use it at the restaurant. We picked two Sundays and my two cooks and I came in and practiced our menus and ran through the recipes as fast as we could. We were cooking 15 dishes in a Sunday—at the end, our brains were mush. We didn’t have time to do more; we have a restaurant to run, too.

The day of the show, we got up at 5 a.m. and started taping about three hours before the challenge began. There’s a lot of waiting around, which makes you more nervous; you sit around and overthink things. I asked my guys if they wanted to change a recipe, and they said to leave it alone.

There’s no way to prepare for the entrance with the smoke machine. I honestly don’t remember that part; I was so nervous. It was like taking karate lessons as a kid—you show no pain. But I was like a bubbling ball of nerves; I was peeing in my pants.

I’m glad I went up against Jose Garces; I love his style. We’ve seen the other chefs compete so many times, but Garces is new and very versatile. He can throw you. His menu was pretty cool; he went from the expected to cutting edge. I like that; it’s what chefs ought to be.

If I didn’t have my guys, I wouldn’t have even gotten there. They are just so solid. I liken it to a pick-up basketball game: It’s not always the best players who win; it’s the best team of three players. We’ve worked together so much, I didn’t have to say much to them; they knew what I wanted. It’s kind of like how we work in the restaurant; I don’t have to say much or yell or anything, but they get it.

When you deal with an ingredient like tongue, you have to play to your audience a bit. In France, you can get a whole tongue on the plate, but that wouldn’t work here. I thought about my customers—people who are curious, obviously savvier than the average person, but not completely food-obsessed carnivores. I thought about how would they want to have tongue and cheek meat presented and enjoy it without being freaked out.

It doesn’t matter who the judges are; at that point, there’s nothing else you can do. Alton Brown was there to mediate; he’s the real expert there, so he explained the food to the judges so they understood it. I felt good after my critique, but I didn’t think I’d won. I overcooked my fish, and they busted me on it. I couldn’t hear what the judges said to Jose, so I had no idea how it came out. When they said Chef Lee was the winner, I was like, “Who is that?” I was shocked.

Cooking on television is different; it’s a different skill set. It’s almost like learning a new vocabulary. It’s still food, but in a different universe. It’s definitely a new thing for me, but it’s fun, it’s a blast. I’ve always loved challenges, and when I was just starting out, I knew that food would take me to incredible places. It’s food that has given me these opportunities. Whatever arises, as long as it’s connected to food, I’ll do it.

Edward Lee is the chef-partner at 610 Magnolia, in Louisville, Ky.