His new book, however, shows him in a different light. In Smoke & Pickles ($30, Artisan), he is a clear-eyed historian and cultural critic, taking the sociological temperature of the quickly changing food world, even as he participates in it.
The chapters are divided by ingredient (lamb, seafood, pickles), but each is assigned an additional, less tangible theme. Amidst talk of fish and shrimp, he tackles “scrutiny,” weighing the value of the increasingly public personas that chefs have taken on through recounting his own experience on Top Chef. Vegetables provide a forum to discuss charity (by way of Johnny Cash), and pickles make a neat metaphor for marriage.
These essays are by turns funny and poignant (Lee has admirable writing chops); the recipes that accompany them struck us all the more as a result.
From variegated rice bowls (topped with chicken and miso, or lamb and tomato-yogurt gravy, perhaps) to chicken-fried pork steak (made with an instant-ramen crust!), to kimchi and Lee’s wife’s family’s sauerkraut, the recipes are as refreshing and thoughtful as the man behind them.
The book closes, appropriately, like most nights with Lee: with a little bit of karaoke.