NYU Alumni Changemaker of the Year
Chef, Restaurateur, Author, and Co-founder of The Let’s Empower Employment (LEE) Initiative
Cultivating Diverse Chefs to Be Future Leaders
From the age of nine, Brooklyn native Edward Lee knew he wanted to be a chef. “Some of that inspiration is due to my grandmother, who was a homemaker and passionate about food,” he says. “There was always something being made at home, whether it was homemade miso, kimchi, or stew.” That fascination with food stayed with Lee, who is now an award-winning chef, owner of three restaurants, a bestselling author, winner of a James Beard Foundation Award for his book Buttermilk Grafitti, as well as a six-time finalist for the Foundation’s Award for Best Chef: Southeast. His culinary style has also landed him appearances on TV and film, from his documentary Fermented to the Emmy-winning series Mind of a Chef.
Outside the kitchen, Lee is bringing more diversity and equality to the restaurant industry through The Let’s Empower Employment (LEE) Initiative. Given the sector’s lack of diversity in executive positions—data shows it’s primarily people of color and women who comprise the lower ranks of fine-dining restaurants—Lee co-founded The LEE Initiative to elevate diverse talent through mentorship, leadership training, and internships. The organization also pivoted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, partnering with Maker’s Mark to give out hundreds of thousands of pounds in supplies and serve over two million meals across dozens of cities. “Whenever we do a program, it’s twofold,” says Lee. “We not only give direct aid, but we also influence other people in the industry to join our cause.”
A groundswell of ambassadors have united with The LEE Initiative to usher forth the “sea of change” Lee believes will happen not with big proclamations but “with kindness, intention, and one person at a time.” The Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice (SRRJ), a coalition of chefs and restaurant owners started by The LEE Initiative, has distributed over $1 million in grants to Black-owned restaurants. Recently, the nonprofit raised another half-million dollars for SRRJ and provided more than $1 million in grants to small family farms. And since launching four years ago, The LEE Initiative has graduated 15 young chefs and bartenders from its Women’s Culinary and Spirits Program.
While he knows change will not happen overnight, Lee sees The LEE Initiative as a spark for a dialogue and generation that will help define the future restaurant industry. The organization has already set its sights on investing in sustainable supply chains, strengthening existing relationships with farmers and restaurateurs, and supporting the next wave of LEE Initiative mentees. And Lee continues to use his vast platform to reach and inspire audiences—he’s currently working on a third book—through his craft. “When people change something they do based on what you do, that’s a big responsibility,” he says. “That’s bigger than the fame and recognition.”