By Sarah Sekula, published in FirstMonday magazine
MayIt all began with peanuts. That’s right, boiled peanuts. The year was 1994, and siblings Matt and Ted Lee, who grew up in Charleston, S.C., had just moved to New York during a blizzard.
The homesick, and chilly, brothers desperately needed some comfort food. “So we figured out how to source raw peanuts in the City and boiled them up on our tenement stove,” Ted recalls. “They were so good, we thought we should turn New York City on to boiled peanuts by selling them wholesale.”
That, he admits, was an immediate failure. New Yorkers didn’t know what boiled peanuts were. Alternatively, they began a hunt for expatriate Southerners in need of a peanut fix. The brothers floated a press release to The New York Times headed “Boiled Peanuts Now Available by Mail Order!”
By June, the Times had published an article, and the phone hasn’t stop ringing since.
That’s when the brothers got the idea for a whole catalog of Southern foods, including classics like stone-ground grits, Jerusalem artichoke relish and fig preserves.
Today, Ted and Lee are touring the country with their latest book masterpiece, “The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern.”
Luckily, Central Florida was one of the stops. The famous brothers were special guests at the Florida Film Festival’s opening night party last month. There, they explained why “Southern food is going to take over the world” and what it takes to make it in the food business.
What were the first few years of your entrepreneurial adventure like?
Matt: “They were both exhilarating and exhausting. We didn’t take on investors or, rather, none would take on us, so we were basically working temp jobs and running the catalog, which was a great lesson in multitasking. There were some highlights: Saveur magazine named us one of the “100 Things We Like Most About Food.” FOOD & WINE Magazine wrote about us. Every press hit from a small newspaper was cause for joy. And then in 2000, a customer of ours, who was an editor at TRAVEL + LEISURE Magazine, asked us to write a travel story about South Carolina, and that’s when our writing careers took off.”
In hindsight, name a few things you may have done differently when it comes to launching the business.
Ted: “We would never again get an 800 number. We registered 1-800-BOILNUT because we thought it would be good for business, but actually it cost us so much money. There were a lot of lonely people out there who had no intention of placing an order, but just wanted to talk to somebody, so they called us. As much as we like to make a lonely person feel happy or cared for, it cost us 85 cents a minute and tied up the phone line for customers who really did want to place an order.”
What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs who’d like to make cooking a career?
Matt: “Do it. But definitely have a strong sense of the cooking career that’s going to tap into what you enjoy most about cooking. There are so many different careers you can have when you cook, and each one has very different hazards and rewards. Most people assume that everyone who wants to cook for a living wants to be the chef of their own independent restaurant. That’s one way to cook — and perhaps the most stressful one, which requires a lot of time away from the stove, managing people, accounting, marketing and promoting yourself — but you can also be a recipe developer, a cookbook writer, a private chef, a food stylist, a recipe tester.”
What is it like working with a sibling?
Ted: “It’s great, um … most of the time. Having grown up in the same house and learned to cook in the same kitchen, we have very similar taste in food and a similar approach to cooking. On matters of taste, flavor, technique, there’s rarely disagreement. When we’re on the road is when it’s most stressful because I’m not great at reading maps, and yet Matt always insists on driving. Things are much better now that we have a GPS.”
Matt: “But in the kitchen, we’re actually very different people. Ted’s very much a recipe follower, and I’m more an intuitive, improvisational cook. I think these two perspectives complement each other in our work, because we want to write books that will appeal to all types of cooks. So you’ll find very tightly tested recipes that nevertheless give license to the reader to try different variations, and hopefully inspire people to get creative in the kitchen.”
How do you come up with new recipe ideas — is it a collaboration between the two of you?
Ted: “It’s pretty much 50/50 — just depends on who gets inspired when. Some recipes hit like a bolt of lightning — the Pimento Cheese Potato Gratin in “Simple Fresh Southern” hit me like that; Matt came up with Mint Julep Panna Cotta similarly, just like … pow! Other times, we’ll talk through an idea based on a recipe we’ve seen or tasted recently. For example, this past Tuesday, we were speaking to the Women’s Book Club of Moncks Corner-Pinopolis [South Carolina], and a woman there gave us her mother’s recipe for Pineapple Casserole. It’s a simple, classic midcentury side dish, typically served warm, with country ham or other roasted meats. It’s made with canned pineapple, eggs, sugar, cubed white bread and melted butter in a 13-by-9, baked until crusty and browned. We were thinking it’d be great to reinvent it in our own style: use fresh pineapple, dial back the sugar a bit, but push it more in the direction of a dessert, like a pineapple bread-pudding. And it just so happened that the week before, we’d tasted a really cool dessert we’d never encountered: Cornbread Pudding at Gary Lang and Beth Shaw’s Breakwater Restaurant in Beaufort, S.C. So we’ll be going into the test kitchen soon to develop just that: Pineapple Cornbread Pudding. We’ll let you know how it goes!”
Why do you think there’s a resurgence of Southern cooking in the United States?
Matt: “We think it’s for a number of reasons. The old saws about Southern cooking — that it’s all about barbecue and fried chicken; that it’s all bad for you; that it’s labor intensive — are being shuddered off in favor of a deeper appreciation for its true richness and diversity. And a lot of great chefs all over the South cooking day in and day out are to thank for spreading the word. Also, we feel that people are getting hip to the notion that Southern cuisine isn’t homogenous; it’s regional. From Richmond, Virginia, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, from the South Carolina Low Country to the bayous of Louisiana, you’ll encounter ingredients, recipes and techniques that are unique to each place. You can taste the difference as you travel from place to place in the South, and we think people love that.”
Ted: “But also Southern cooking has made it onto the palette of major cultural influences — French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese — that aspirational chefs all over the nation draw upon for inspiration. The Southern foods these chefs are putting on their menus show a much deeper understanding of the breadth and depth of the region’s cuisine. When you can go to Momofuku, an Asian restaurant in New York City, and order a tasting plate of country hams from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, or when you can go to a vegetarian restaurant in Napa and eat stone-ground grits by an artisan miller in South Carolina, you might imagine that some day, Southern food is going to take over the world!”