Edward Lee wears a homemade mask with a blue and black horseshoe print

Edward Lee (CAS ’95)

Providing Much-Needed Relief for Restaurant Workers and Small Farmers

By Catherine Hong

Experience can be overrated. Just ask chef Edward Lee, who found that ignorance was liberating when it came to starting a nonprofit. “I had zero experience in that world,” he says from his home in Washington, DC. “I think that freed us.”

The owner of restaurants in Louisville, Kentucky, and the DC metro area, Lee is working around the clock these days, but not in the kitchen. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has pivoted his attention to the LEE (Let’s Empower Employment) Initiative. The organization, which he cofounded in 2015, has raised over $2.2 million, opened 19 relief kitchens across the country, and assisted farms devastated by coronavirus fallout.

“We run this not like a typical nonprofit but like a restaurant, in that you wake up every morning, solve unexpected problems, don’t quit, and don’t take no for an answer,” Lee says. While it’s not uncommon for a nonprofit to spend more than a third of its donations on operating costs and overhead, Lee reports that 95 percent of donations go straight to those in need.

It’s just this type of bold thinking that Lee has built his impressive career on. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he cooked and waited tables while studying literature at the College of Arts and Science. Fast-forward to 2020: he’s a four-time James Beard Foundation Best Chef nominee, was up for an Emmy for hosting PBS’s The Mind of a Chef, and is the author of two books, Smoke & Pickles and Buttermilk Graffiti.

While a chef through and through, Lee’s pandemic-related charitable work has opened his eyes to the potential that chefs have to change the world beyond simply cooking for it. Next up for his organization is the Restaurant Reboot Relief Program, aimed at helping to fix the food supply chain. “If there’s anyone suffering worse than restaurants, it’s the small farmers who supply the restaurants,” he explains. Without cash flow, livestock farmers are struggling to buy feed for their animals, and growers can’t afford to pay workers to harvest their crops. “It’s gotten to the point where farmers are forced to give the food away for free or destroy it, and that’s not something I can live with,” he says. The LEE Initiative invests money directly into sustainable farmer partners, who then give products directly to area restaurant partners; the program is active in several regions nationwide with plans to expand. “I’m not the kind of person who can just sit around doing nothing,” Lee says. “So I just dove in.”