How an Accidental Chef Created a Lasting Legacy, Slightly North of Broad
By: Beverly Willett
Chef Frank Lee, an accidental chef, has elevated cooking to an art form. His classic bistro-style restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, has developed over the years into a community where people feel at home and are nurtured.
“I’m not a big fan of cookbooks,” celebrated chef Frank Lee says about “The S.N.O.B. Experience,” his new cookbook based on Slightly North of Broad, the restaurant he co-founded in 1993. “If you want to learn how to cook, get your ass in the kitchen and learn.”
It’s hard to peg S.N.O.B. by genre. The menu’s been eclectic from the start. So much of what happens there isn’t easily distilled. Fresh, carefully – and lovingly – prepared food, executed with community in mind sums up Lee’s philosophy. And his cookbook is far more than a mere compendium of recipes.
He became a chef by accident. In 1973, he and a bunch of teenage friends were goofing around after a yoga class and one of them suggested opening a vegetarian restaurant. So they did. “We were thinking maybe we’d do it for a year or less for a hoot and a holler,” Lee says. But one year turned into six, followed by a trip to France to learn technique.
“A bunch of young rebel chefs were elevating cooking to an art form. They were sourcing locally and being a part of the community,” he says of his French mentors. After stints elsewhere, Lee opened S.N.O.B., pairing the fundamentals of French cooking with Southern heritage and quality local ingredients reflective of the seasons.
He banded together with other Charleston chefs and the business community and, over several decades, turned the town into an international food and cultural mecca. Despite the risks and high costs of restaurant ventures, Lee prefers collaboration to competition.
“A rising tide floats all boats,” he claims. “It’s a lot like sports. Even though they’re busting heads one minute, at the end of the game they’re hugging and slapping each other on the butt.”
Not a fame seeker, Lee’s achieved it nonetheless. “Good Morning America,” “Food & Wine,” “Great Chefs of the South,” and more: they’ve all taken notice.
“S.N.O.B. is not just a transaction that exchanges money for calories,” Chef explains. “Over the years it has developed into a community spot where people feel at home and are nurtured. Where people know your name, where you like to sit, who your children are.” Kind of like a family restaurant, only a top-star one.
That’s because Lee understands the cosmic interconnectedness of all things. The timing and orchestration necessary to prepare, plate and serve every single meal. The transformation of seedlings into the perfectly ripe vegetable selected by hand at the local market.
He pays homage to “the business partners that raised me from an egg.” To the bartenders, managers, kitchen staff, patrons, and suppliers, calling each by name. To his wife who kept him focused and tended their children while he worked long hours mentoring his other family – the kitchen staff, teaching them everything he knows about food and its preparation. And also art and how to get along in the world; practicalities, too, like how to open a bank account. He played opera in the kitchen for inspiration. And he and his partners paid for health insurance for hourly employees!
All are equal in Lee’s kitchen. And the restaurant’s warehouse location with exposed ducts and open kitchen reinforce this egalitarian view.
Chef Frank Lee Celebrates “The S.N.O.B Experience” Cookbook
Chef Frank Lee recently announced the release of his cookbook, “The S.N.O.B Experience.” Lee provides more than just a compilation of the classic recipes that played foundational roles in the establishment of his restaurant. He shares stories and insights into his role as a pioneer in the Charleston culinary community. The cookbook celebrates Lee’s 23 yearlong dedication to Slightly North of Broad.
The cookbook is a compilation of SNOB classics, long-running seasonal plates and many of the side dishes and sauces that played foundational roles in establishing the restaurant’s loyal following since it opened its doors in 1993.