Recipe for Success honors Houston meals legend Peg Lee

A whole generation of Houstonians doesn’t remember a time when the city wasn’t known as a thriving, exciting metropolis for food and drink.

In the 1970s and 1980s, local supermarkets were not full of “exotic” ingredients that are now commonplace, such as arborio rice, lemongrass, harissa, rocket, scallops, fish sauce, worldly cheese and olive oil. There was no phalanx of food professionals trumpeting their restaurant offerings, and certainly no nationally recognized celebrity chefs. Local media didn’t cover 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 through her positions as founding director of the Rice Epicurean Cooking School and later in the same role for Central Market, brought national and international chefs to Houston and raised 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 Recipe for Success at the organization’s Hope Farms. It will be a night when the city’s top food and beverage professionals and food lovers gather to pay tribute to Lee.

“She’s influenced pretty much everyone,” said Greg Martin, head chef at Bistro Menil. “Back then it was Ann Criswell or Peg Lee (longtime food editor of the Houston Chronicle). As a chef, the answer was always yes when one of them asked you for something. It had to be. “

The Delicious Alchemy Banquet in honor of Peg Lee, a fundraiser for Recipe for Success, will take place on May 3rd at 7pm at Recipe for Success Hope Farms, 10401 Scott. Tickets are $ 2,500 per person; see rezept4success.org.

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And there were plenty of hungry Houstonians ready to say yes when Lee started the town’s first organized cooking classes at Rice Epicurean. Because of this, she is often referred to as the “Julia Child of Houston” by many of the old guard.

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 of 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 could cook and had a great palate. 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 at the heart of Houston’s culinary scene for restaurants and cooking classes. Peg was the focus. “

Simmering talent

Lee, who grew up in Massachusetts, is the first to admit that she inherited no cooking talent from her mother, who once served her husband a roast chicken cooked with the giblets still in the bird. However, her mother’s friends saw her interest in food and encouraged the budding foodie.

But it was Lee’s natural curiosity about the world – she has traveled extensively – that shaped her relationship with food the most. With the enthusiasm of a seasoned, starved researcher, she absorbed ideas, languages, cultures and global foodways.

And she brought that culinary zeal with her when she and her husband Edwy Lee, an English professor and writer, moved to Houston in 1969. Edwy Lee took a job teaching comparative literature at the University of Houston and later taught at Houston Community College. Peg impressed the educators with her cooking talents demonstrated at home dinner parties, and she was soon encouraged to teach cooking classes – basically home economics – at the HCC in 1971.

This resulted in cooking demonstrations being held for the Magic Pan crepe restaurant, which led to a job at Marshall Field in the early 1980s overseeing cookware and food demonstrations. The new Rice Epicurean opened in 1988 and in just a few years opened the city’s first cooking school, with Lee as director, a role she held until 2001 when Central Market courted Lee to run its school. She retired in 2006.

Edwy Lee died in 1984. This is how Peg Lee explains why she accepted the job at Rice Epicurean: “I was a widow. My children were all gone. I lived with a dog. What else was there to do? “

But she came to the job armed. She was a gifted cook, nature educator, media connoisseur, well organized in the fundamentals of food demonstration, and had a natural affinity with chefs and cookbook authors whose publishers were familiarizing themselves with Houston’s market potential. Lee tied everything together as skillfully as a chicken with a cooking tie.

Still, she was averse to doing herself credit.

“I’m not a restaurant chef, I’m not a chef,” she said. “I cook like a housewife.”

“A world of food”

Their children – brothers Andrew, Duncan, and Matt Lee, and sister Rachel Lee Hovnanian – would be different. They grew up well traveled like their parents and with a mother who sent them to school with lunch boxes filled with veal Milanese lamb rolls or lamb rolls from the Middle East. At a time when children their age were demanding seaweed and TV dinners, the Lee siblings would sit down for family meals with duck a l’orange, Senegalese chicken, fresh tomato marinara on homemade noodles, ham 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 Miami-based multimedia artist, grew up knowing how to make pate brisée (batter) as natural as some kids put together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“When we were growing up, we didn’t think it was unusual to have a restaurant oven in our family kitchen,” she said. “My mother opened up a world of food for us.”

When asked if the Lee children were aware of their mother’s influence on the school-age food scene in Houston, Matthew Lee said absolutely nothing.

“I just knew everyone wanted to stay at Lee House because Mrs. Lee would cook,” said Matthew, founder of the Teo Gelato brand in Austin.

Awards

Lee was an early advocate of Recipe for Success, which Gracie Cavnar created to fight childhood obesity and transform the way children appreciate and understand food.

Chef Greg Martin lighted up Lee early to greet him at her cooking school. He washed dishes in exchange for observing the classes. Years later, when he became head chef at Cafe Annie, he occasionally ran these classes.

“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 100 percent an innovator. She has crossed the line. “

Not happy with talking about her accomplishments, Lee admits that at a time when people were thinking closely about food, she may have had something to do with expanding the scope.

“When I think about it, I might have expanded it a little,” she said. “Maybe I opened the door.”

greg.morago@chron.com

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