Chef Edward Lee says food, at its best, tells a story. And the story he wants told with the meal he's whipping up for next week's White House state dinner is of the deep connection between the United States and its ally South Korea.
President Joe Biden is hosting South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Wednesday for a state visit, including a glitzy state dinner, and the White House invited Lee, a Korean American chef and restaurateur, to help prepare the meal.
The White House gave The Associated Press an exclusive preview of its plans to use Lee as a "guest chef" for the meal and of its high-wattage lineup for the after-dinner entertainment: Broadway stars Norm Lewis, Lea Salonga and Jessica Vosk.
In an interview with the AP, Lee said "Korean food and American food can merge together and create this beautiful hybrid that is unique and delicious."
He said any iconic American food, if spiked with a "little Korean flavor or Korean spice," will still be familiar, but it will just be different and unique. Real food for thought, he said.
"Your mind becomes curious about more than just the flavors," Lee said. "When food is at its best, it tells a story."
A state visit is the highest diplomatic honor the U.S. reserves for its closest allies, and Biden so far has extended just two such invitations. The first went to France last December.
Every component of a state visit, from the booming 21-gun salute for the leader's arrival, to the glitz and glamour on display at the black-tie state dinner, is designed to highlight ties between the U.S. and its ally. Yoon's visit will mark 70 years of U.S.-South Korea relations.
White House social secretary Carlos Elizondo reached out to the New York City-born chef about two months ago to seek his help with the dinner. Lee's cooking style is one that meshes two cuisines: Korean food and food from the Southern U.S.
Lee recently spent two days at the White House testing recipes and plating meals, offering tastes to first lady Jill Biden and her staff, who are responsible for the dinner and who helped develop the menu. He worked with White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford and her staff.
The experience was nerve-wracking.
"I’ve been on ‘Top Chef,’ where I’ve had to cook for some very high-powered chefs who were critiquing my food, and this was probably more pressure than the TV show," Lee said of having the first lady be the judge of his kitchen creations.
The 50-year-old husband and father couldn’t say what's on the menu. The White House will be releasing those details on Monday. But the menu has been finalized, Lee said, practically breathing a sigh of relief during Thursday's telephone interview.
Lee started working in restaurants when he was 14 years old. He attended culinary school after graduation from New York University but dropped out after a week. A restaurant he opened in lower Manhattan folded after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
He took a break to travel around the United States and visit places he'd only wondered about while growing up in New York. He was able to scratch the Kentucky Derby from his bucket list — and while there he fell in love with Louisville and its Southern culture.
It's where, Lee said, "I found my culinary voice."
He has one restaurant, 610 Magnolia, in Louisville, and is weeks away from opening another. He lives part time in Washington, D.C., where he is culinary director for a third restaurant, Succotash. He won a James Beard Award for his book "Buttermilk Graffiti."
Lee says Southerners and Koreans are alike in how they eat — big tables, plenty of food, side dishes, grazing and barbecue. Different spices, flavors and techniques, he said, "but the philosophy is the same, the sensation is the same."
The decision to recruit Lee to be the guest chef revives a practice that Michelle Obama often used when she arranged state dinners as first lady. Marcus Samuelsson, Mario Batali and Anita Lo were among the celebrity chefs she enlisted to add a splash of pizazz.
Jill Biden chose Lee because of his Korean-influenced American cuisine, her office said.
After dinner, Broadway stars Lewis, Salonga and Vosk will entertain guests with a mix of solo, duet and trio performances.
Lewis' career spans film, television and theater. He made history in 2014 as Broadway's first Black phantom in "The Phantom of the Opera," which recently closed after a record 35-year run. He currently stars in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning production of "A Soldier's Play."
Salonga is known for her award-winning role of Kim in "Miss Saigon." In Disney films, she was the singing voice of Princess Jasmine in "Aladdin" and Fa Mulan for "Mulan" and "Mulan II." She also had roles in "Les Miserables" on Broadway.
Vosk is a singer and actor who has appeared in "Wicked" and in the most recent revival of "Fiddler on the Roof," both on Broadway.