McAtee Community Kitchen opens June 15.

By Betsy Cribb
Updated June 11, 2020
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Chefs Nikkia Rhodes (left) and Edward Lee
Courtesy of Edward Lee

Chef Edward Lee’s litany of accomplishments in the food world reads as a kind of bucket list—one where he’s already ticked all the boxes.

He owns three restaurants in Louisville and serves as the culinary director of another on the East Coast; he’s been a James Beard Award for Best Chef nominee seven times and a semifinalist thrice; he’s written and hosted a feature documentary (about fermentation, no less!); he’s taken home a James Beard Book Award for writing (see Buttermilk Graffiti); and he even has his own hot sauce (buy it here).

But he’s also stretching the definition of what a chef can be.

Five years ago, Lee co-founded the LEE Initiative (an acronym for “Let’s Empower Employment”) in an effort to make the food industry a more equal, diverse space, establishing mentorship experiences for young adults and a leadership development program for women chefs.

Now, moved by protests calling for justice and equality in response to Breonna Taylor’s death, Lee is championing a new initiative to better serve his Louisville neighbors.

“You know I’ve been doing a lot of work around Louisville for years, and I have a lot of friends in the Black community,” says Lee. “The one thing they always tell me is that it’s fine and great [that people help] when there’s a tragedy, but someone needs to help when there’s not a tragedy. Someone needs to look out when the cameras go away, when the headlines go away. Every time there’s some deep tragedy, there’s a knee-jerk reaction, but then it kind of goes away and nothing ever changes.”

So he’s doing something permanent. On June 9, Lee closed one of his three Louisville restaurants, MilkWood, to establish McAtee Community Kitchen, and he’s giving Chef Nikkia Rhodes, a friend and graduate of the LEE Initiative’s Women Chefs Program, the keys.

Rhodes is currently the director of the Iroquois High School Culinary Program, and it’s her students who will be running the kitchen.

Chef Nikkia Rhodes
Courtesy of Edward Lee

“She’s a natural,” said Lee of why he wanted Rhodes on board. “The job is not just to provide meals, but also to train young kids who want to become chefs or work in the culinary industry. She’s a natural-born teacher and leader. At 22, she created a culinary curriculum for the public high school here. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t doing that at 22. To see that, it’s pretty remarkable.”

The kitchen will serve the West End, Shelby Park, and Smoketown neighborhoods, providing 7,000 pounds of fresh produce and shelf-stable products every Monday and hot meals three times weekly.

“The people of these neighborhoods need more,” says Lee. “They need more access to food, to supplies, things for their kids… But there’s community here…There’s great restaurants too. Some of the best food in Louisville is right in these neighborhoods. We want to be a part of that community in a way that’s positive.”

The community kitchen is named for David “YaYa” McAtee, who ran a barbeque stand in West End. With his family’s permission, Lee named the community kitchen in his memory.

“He was known for giving out free meals,” says Lee. “There are all of these stories about him around town where he gave out free meals to people in need. It’s a hard thing to do when you have a business. I don’t give out a lot of free meals, you know? I’m a chef and I have a business. It’s hard. So whenever you hear about a person like that, who is so giving, it speaks to the true nature of what it means to really love being a chef. To love creating something with your hands and wanting to share it.”

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