A whole generation of Houstonians can’t remember a time when the city wasn’t known as a thriving, exciting food and dining metropolis.
But in the 1970s and 1980s, local supermarkets weren’t teeming with “exotic” ingredients that are common today, such as arborio rice, lemongrass, harissa, rocket, scuba scallops, fish sauce, cheese and olive oil. There was no phalanx of food professionals who trumpeted through their restaurant offer and certainly no nationally recognized star chefs. Local media didn’t treat food as pop culture or the economic engine it is today.
Peg Lee helped change that.
The educator, who taught many Houstonians how to cook, brought national and international chefs to Houston through her positions as founding director of the Rice Epicurean Cooking School and later in the same role for Central Market, raising the city’s profile as a culinary destination and hotbed of multicultural flavors.
The 88-year-old Dynamo, now retired, will be honored on May 3rd at the Delicious Alchemy Banquet, a fundraiser for the recipe for success at the organization’s Hope Farms. It will be a night when the city’s top food, beverage and gourmet enthusiasts gather to pay tribute to Lee.
“She’s had an impact on pretty much everyone,” says Greg Martin, head chef at Bistro Menil. “Back then it was (longtime food editor of the Houston Chronicle) Ann Criswell or Peg Lee. As a chef, the answer was always yes when one of them reached out and asked you for something. It had to be. “
The Delicious Alchemy Banquet in honor of Peg Lee, a fundraiser for Recipe for Success, will be held on May 3 at 7:00 p.m. at Recipe for Success Hope Farms, 10401 Scott. Tickets are $ 2,500 per person; see rezept4erffekt.org.
And there were plenty of hungry Houstonians ready to say yes when Lee started the town’s first organized cooking classes at the Rice Epicurean. Because of this, many of the old guard often refer to her as “the Julia child of Houston”.
Lee knew Child, along with the hundreds of chefs and cookbook authors she brought to Houston – including legendary French chef Andre Daguin, Anne Willan, Marcella Hazan, Emeril Lagasse, and Anthony Bourdain. But she also campaigned for a new era of Houston chefs, including those at Brennan’s of Houston (Carl Walker, Randy Evans), Mark Cox, Arturo Boada, Monica Pope, and Robert Del Grande, Houston’s first James Beard Award-winning chef .
“She knew how to cook and had a great taste bud. She knew what food was, ”said Del Grande. “But she never exaggerated. It was never about her, it was, ‘How can I help?’ She made everything possible. She was the heart of Houston’s culinary scene for dining and cooking classes. Peg was the focus. “
Lee, who grew up in Massachusetts, is the first to admit she inherited zero cooking talents from her mother, who once served her husband a roast chicken that was still cooked in the bird with the giblets inside. However, her mother’s friends saw her interest in food and encouraged the budding foodie.
But it was Lee’s own natural curiosity about the world – she has traveled extensively – that has helped shape her relationship with food the most. With the enthusiasm of an experienced, voracious explorer, she absorbed ideas, languages, cultures and global foodways.
And that culinary zeal she brought with her when she moved to Houston in 1969 with her husband, Edwy Lee, an English professor and writer. Edwy Lee accepted a position as a lecturer in comparative literature at the University of Houston and later taught at the Houston Community College. Peg impressed educators with her cooking talents shown at home dinner parties, and she soon felt encouraged to teach cooking classes – basically home economics – at HCC in 1971.
This led to a period of cooking demonstrations for the Magic Pan Cr restaurantpe restaurant, which led to a job in the early 1980s at Marshall Fields overseeing cookware and food demonstrations. The new Rice Epicurean opened in 1988 and within a few years founded the city’s first cooking school, with Lee as director, a role she held until 2001 when Central Market asked Lee to run her school. In 2006 she retired.
Edwy Lee died in 1984. When asked why she took the job at Rice Epicurean, Peg Lee says, “I was a widow. My children were all gone. I lived with a dog. What else was there to do? “
But she came to work armed. She was a gifted cook, innate educator, media savvy, well organized food demonstration, and natural affinity for chefs and cookbook writers whose publishers saw the market potential of Houston. Lee put everything together as masterfully as a chicken tied up by the chef.
Still, she didn’t want to give herself credit.
“I’m not a restaurant chef, I’m not a chef,” she said. “I cook like a housewife.”
“A world of food”
Her children – brothers Andrew, Duncan, and Matt Lee, and sister Rachel Lee Hovnanian – would disagree. Like their parents, they grew up well traveled and with a mother who sent them to school with lunch boxes filled with Milanese veal or oriental lamb rolls. At a time when children their age longed for seaweed and TV dinners, the Lee siblings sat down for family dinners of duck a l’orange, Senegalese chicken, fresh tomato marinara on homemade pasta, prosciutto and melon, and cow tongue.
“When we got home from school there was a calf’s head on the stove,” said Duncan Lee, who lives in Miami Beach, Florida and works in the single-family home market.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, a multimedia artist who lives in Miami, knows how to make pâte brisée (pastry dough) as naturally as some kids put together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“When we were growing up, we didn’t find it unusual to have a restaurant oven in our family kitchen,” she says. “My mother opened up a world of food for us.”
When asked if the school-aged Lee children were aware of their mother’s influence on the Houston food scene, Matthew Lee said absolutely no.
“I just knew everyone was going to stay at Lee House because Mrs. Lee would cook,” said Matthew, founder of the Teo Gelato brand in Austin.
Lee was an early proponent of Recipe for Success, which Gracie Cavnar developed to fight childhood obesity and change the way children appreciate and understand food.
Chef Greg Martin gave Lee an early glow that welcomed him to her cooking school; he washed dishes in exchange for observing the class. Years later, when he became head chef at Cafe Annie, he found himself occasionally teaching these courses.
“I adore her. I love the richness of your life. I want to be like Peg Lee, ”said Martin. “Everything was so smooth and elegant, just like her.”
Chef Randy Evans is also an admirer.
“She gave us an outlet before there was food television. Rice Epicurean did things no one else did and really set the tone in Houston for what cooking classes could be, ”said Evans, director of culinary development for restaurants at HEB. “She is an innovator, 100 percent. She has exceeded the limits. “
Lee is not comfortable talking about her accomplishments, and admits that at a time when people were thinking about food in a narrow way, people might have something to do with expanding the space.
“When I think about it, I might have expanded it a little,” she said. “Maybe I opened the door.”