Acclaimed chef Edward Lee brings his signature mix of forward flavors and talented women to our city’s dining scene with his recent introduction of Nami and Neighbors Noodles in Butchertown.
Written by Tabnie Dozier | Photographed by Kylene White
“I support good chefs and good people,” says local, world-renowned chef, James Beard nominee and past contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef Edward Lee. Those are the baseline job requirements for working alongside one of Louisville – and the country’s – most celebrated chefs, and yet Chef Lee’s restaurants are an industry anomaly: Most of his back of the house staff are women in a culinary world where less than twenty percent of management roles are held by females.
The famed Korean-American chef and creator of the Lee Initiative, a non-profit not only devoted to feeding the hungry but also to its trailblazing Womens Culinary and Spirits program, says he supports women in the restaurant industry, but he doesn’t go out of his way to find them.
“I just find the best in the business and they happen to be women,” says Lee.
Lee, a native New Yorker, first attracted national attention when he took over ownership of 610 Magnolia in Old Louisville, an upscale eatery that he elevated to a five-star experience with innovative Southern cuisine and high concept, wildly imaginative prix fixe menus. Since then, the innovative chef entrepreneur has opened a string of highly-acclaimed restaurants including MilkWood, Whiskey Dry and Succotash in Washington DC. His newest venture in his chosen hometown is Nami, a Korean steakhouse that opened during Derby Season in Butchertown, and its newer sister, Neighbors Noodles, an attached carry-out-only noodle shop operated by the same team.
This restaurant is the first one for Chef Lee that truly pays tribute to his culinary roots and to execute this vision he has hired an executive chef, consulting chef, general manager and cocktail manager who are all women. It’s an atypical lineup in an industry where women often struggle to rise through the ranks. While over half of restaurant and food service employees are female, a 2022 report from the National Restaurant Association found women only account for one in five chefs and one in three cooks.
That would make Lee – and his new Nami – industry outliers. His LEE Initiative continually elevates women into this traditionally male-dominated space through his Women Culinary and Spirits Program, founded in 2018. The program aims to create a path to leadership for women in the food and beverage industry through mentorship, training and continuing education opportunities. Nami executive chef Breanna Baker is a graduate of The LEE Initiative’s empowerment program. She began working at 610 Magnolia while she was attending Sullivan University and worked her way up from line cook to sous chef.
“She has all the makings of a great chef,” Lee says. “Breanna represents that next wave of chefs and they’re driven, they’re very hard working and they’re the future of the food world.”
Yeon-Hee Chung, Nami’s consulting chef, comes to the restaurant with years of experience leading her own restaurant. Chung previously ran Charim, a beloved Louisville restaurant that offered traditional Korean cuisine. In addition to love and wisdom, Lee says Chung brings heritage, tradition and technique to the menu items at Nami.
And anyone who thinks that behind the bar is a man’s world hasn’t met Stacie Stewart, Nami’s general manager and cocktail manager. Stewart first connected with Lee a decade ago when he was looking for someone to manage his former MilkWood restaurant in downtown Louisville. “I probably did not have any business interviewing for that job but […] he took a chance on me,” recalls Stewart.
Whether it was by chance or fate, hiring the up-and-coming professional led to a dynamic partnership between Stewart and Lee. Stewart led MilkWood until its closure in 2020. When it came time to put together a leadership team for Nami, Lee says Stewart was the obvious choice. “[Stacie] is a pro and she wears many hats. She’s our beverage manager. She’s our GM. She’s our human resources,” Lee says. “I couldn’t do this without her. She’s an amazing asset.”
In addition to crafting an innovative menu, a memorable customer experience and carefully curated cocktails, the pair work together to ensure the hospitality they show their customers is extended to their employees. In an industry known for its high turnaround, creating a fulfilling work environment is something both Stewart and Lee are passionate about. “I really love being able to retain people on my staff,” says Stewart.
Lee wants his restaurants to be a safe, welcoming place for his employees. That’s why, in addition to hiring a diverse workforce, he has human resources and open door policies at all of his restaurants. More sexual harassment claims in the U.S. are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other, according to the Harvard Business Review. Lee says implementing no tolerance policies and standing by them has helped protect his workers.
“As a male chef […] I’ve never struggled with sexual harassment in my businesses. I don’t have those personal experiences,” says Lee. “When you listen to how female chefs have had to deal with everything that I’ve dealt with but then an extra layer of fear and all that – it just breaks my heart.”
Stewart, who entered the industry as a teenager waiting tables, has worked in restaurants where she felt unsupported, like no one cared. Nami, she says, is not one of those places. From elevating women to protecting his workers, Lee is a contradiction from “the norm” in an industry infamous for silencing voices and stifling growth. There is no secret recipe to creating an equitable and safe workplace, Lee says, you just have to care. That’s how you get good chefs and good people.
As for what’s on the menu? Choose the traditional table grill or have the Korean BBQ cooked for you in the kitchen. Take your pick of lunch, brunch and even an area to belt your favorite tunes in the karaoke room. “Nami ‘’ means “I am beautiful” in Korean. The entire concept is a nod to Chef Lee’s roots, in his culinary journey and also his personal life. The ingredients hold true to his background, from sauces such as citrus soy and gochujang to classics like bibimbap rice bowls, rice cakes, hand cut noodles and deliciously tender sautéed vegetables and hand rolls. For vegetarians or vegans, your preferences are not forgotten. The salad options include tofu, fennel, Asian pears and unique dressings. Or try dipping your vegetable pajun with soy sauce, which comes with scallions and zucchini. The sweet potato edamame dumplings are a great appetizer option, and an evening cocktail like the Roasted Barley Tea Manhattan with Togarashi (pictured) is handcrafted by Stacie Stewart and her team of mixologists.
Nami is open seven days a week from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. and the bar stays open late on Friday and Saturday nights. Treat your tastebuds at 835 East Main Street, Suite 106.