When you ask chef Edward Lee what kind of food he cooks, he simply says, “Southern food.”
But then the Korean-American chef adds a caveat; “I do put kimchi in my collards and other things that aren’t traditional. I don’t claim to do straight Southern food.”
That balance of reverence and riffing is evident at the newly opened second location of Succotash in Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter, where the menu includes peel-and-eat shrimp with gochujang dipping sauce, corn panna cotta gets topped with caviar, and a chess pie-inspired cookie is accented with jasmine curd and fresh citrus (though you can also get standard Southern favorites, like shrimp and grits as well as fried chicken and waffles). The forward-minded restaurant is the follow-up to the debut location just outside the city limits in National Harbor, Maryland, which opened in the fall of 2015, and Lee’s two celebrated Louisville, Kentucky, restaurants, MilkWood and 610 Magnolia.
His expanding empire didn’t happen overnight. It’s a story a decade and a half in the making, which includes starring turns on Top Chef and The Mind of a Chef, four nominations for a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, and a well-received cookbook, Smoke and Pickles. Though this pace of growth is relatively slow when compared to some of Lee’s contemporaries, he is most concerned about maintaining the quality of his endeavors. Here are his six tips on how to expand without diluting your restaurant brand.
Choose your next location wisely.
Though he was offered opportunities to open in smaller towns, he was drawn to D.C.’s large size and vibrant dining scene. Additionally, the city shares similar DNA to his home base. “It’s not quite the South, but it’s pretty darn close,” he says. “It’s not as deeply entrenched in Southern tradition. So when I say I’m making a chess pie, but I’m including olive oil and citrus fruit in it, people are okay with it.”
Research your new home.
Lee started coming to D.C. regularly four years ago. “Every neighborhood is its own micro-ecosystem,” says Lee. “National Harbor has a lot of conventions, and people want to eat fast. In Penn Quarter, people come in looking for a slightly longer experience. They want to relax. We also wanted to elevate the menu — but not too much — because we’re not a fancy restaurant by any means.”
Train your staff.
Before opening, he conducted six days of wide-ranging classes that touched on music history, politics, history, and food. “For me, you can’t teach Southern food in a bubble,” he says. “How do I explain to you that collard greens came from Africa without explaining to you the entire history of the South? I didn’t want the waiters, managers, and cooks to simply memorize food.”
Face time is key.
When opening the first Succotash in National Harbor, Lee evenly split his time between D.C. and Louisville in two-week chunks. When he wasn’t on site, he spoke with the chef and his business partners every day. In advance of opening the second Succotash, he moved his family to D.C. to be as hands-on as possible. “There’s nothing that replaces time commitment,” he says. “I wish I could find a magic spell or potion, but it’s about physically being there.”
Balance local and institutional knowledge.
The team at Succotash Penn Quarter includes veterans from the D.C. restaurant scene alongside team members whom Lee mentored and trained up in Louisville. “And I’m the mad scientist who puts it all together,” he says.
“My team will make mistakes, but it’s my job not to be too concerned when they do,” says Lee. “We apologize to the customer and move on. But if I pick up after every mistake, they’ll never learn. They need to fail and feel the weight of that mistake.”
Manage your time wisely.
“I don’t have enough minutes in the day to get to all the things I need to attend to,” he says. “I’ve learned you need to finish something before moving on. I don’t like to leave it hanging. Be in the moment, get it done, and get it done well.”
Photo credits: Dan Dry (Ed Lee); Scott Suchman (food); Clarence Butts (interior).