“Sometimes, you just want to eat something simple,” says chef Alex Lee of the Glen Oaks Country Club. “Comfort food, dishes that are clean, hearty and familiar.”
It is with this mentality that this revered master chef cooks for other fellow chefs. A reputation for humility and unadulterated passion has preceded this enigma of a chef, one who left the spotlight to devote his life to cooking with feeling instead of for covers, and spending quality time with his family rather than chase the stardom so tempting in this age of celebrity chefs. With such balanced principles, it didn’t come as a great surprise that the menus he designs for his colleagues are as free of ego as his attitude.
Every year, Lee partakes in a chef’s potluck with about 50 chefs of equally stunning résumés, and every year, he wows by paying homage to the sanctity of exceptional ingredients. One would think that most chefs would, in the spirit of friendly competition, try to outdo one another. Whose presentation will be more meticulous than their methods, or dishes most cunningly, teasingly small? Who will be the one to bring a perfect sous–vide preparation to the table or awe with the latest technique in molecular gastronomy?
Not Lee. He doesn’t cook to impress — he cooks to bring pleasure. He believes in drawing upon his formidable arsenal of experience and classical techniques with his knowledge of seasonality and global flavors, and elevates lost dishes and simple traditions to new levels of creativity.
“Last year, I took a very big paella pan and made classic dirty rice with great ingredients,” he says, illustrating with his hands the gigantean proportions of the pan. “Then, I took chicken wings, deboned them, and stuffed them with crawfish and andouille sausage. I roasted them in a special crustacean butter and took these beautiful, giant blood-red prawns from Spain and stuffed the heads with tasso, garlic and parsley.” Lee’s eyes glaze over in remembrance; the man never forgets a dish he makes. Coming back to himself, he sums it up succintly: “It was delicious.”
And most importantly to him, authentic and soulful, with deep flavors that penetrate and nod respectfully to the origins of his ingredients.
He plans to bring that same kind of heart to this October’s Meatopia X: Carnivore’s Ball, a hedonistic celebration of — simply put — meat cooked on wood or charcoal. All of the meat. Cruelty-free and prepared by chefs only. His Ode to New York will reference the rich Jewish deli tradition of our most famous city, with pastrami and smoked short ribs, dinosaur cuts brined in Dr. Brown’s cream soda, as the star. Key supporting players will include homemade pickles, fresh-baked rye and kaleslaw for a healthy twist.
For a man who reveres wholesome, hearty food, it doesn’t get much more deeply rooted and soulful than that. And in true form, although some of the finest chefs in the world will be in attendance or at work, it’s not his colleagues he’s hoping to impress, nor his competitors. All he wants is to put good food in our bellies. And that is exactly what makes him a master.