The Lee Brothers discuss why “Atlanta is the future of the South,” their first television show, and red velvet cake

“Southern Uncovered with the Lee Bros.” premieres June 14th on Ovation
Ted (left) and Matt (right) Lee
Ted (left) and Matt (right) Lee; Image courtesy of Getty Images Moses Robinson

Courtesy of Moses Robinson

Matt and Ted Lee will tell you just how far boiled peanuts can take you in this world. Today they’re cookbook authors, James Beard Award winners, icons and boosters of Southern food and culture, and writers for Travel + Leisure. But back in 1994, they were just two homesick, post-college grads in New York City missing Charleston.

At the time they considered themselves Southern expats, but the irony is that neither was born in Charleston. Matt was born in Washington, D.C. Ted was born in New York. They moved to Charleston at an age old enough to know that they were outsiders but early enough to still plant their roots in Southern soil (Matt was nine; Ted was seven). Thinking that there might be other Southern expats craving a taste of home like themselves, they started selling boiled peanuts for $4.50 a pound.

Business was slow—until a short, 240-word blurb about their peanuts ran in the New York Times. Orders came flying in. The brothers added Cheerwine, Duke’s Mayo, and other Southern staples like grits and pickled okra to their inventory, and so began their first business: “The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue.” Editors of Saveur, Food & Wine, and Travel + Leisure soon caught on, and before long the duo was traveling the South writing essays from the road. They published their first cookbook, “Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook,” in 2007 and won James Beard Cookbook of the Year. More books, essays, and talks have since followed.

The Lee brothers are now onto their next journey: television. “Southern Uncovered with the Lee Bros.” will follow the Lee brothers as they explore the food, history, and culture of Southern cities like Asheville, Dallas, Louisville, and New Orleans. The series premieres June 14th on Ovation and will start in their hometown of Charleston. Next up is Atlanta, where they’ll visit Heirloom Market BBQ, Buford Highway Farmers Market, and Krog Street Market, among others. Below, an excerpt from my chat with the brothers, who had just finished filming with the King of Pops.

Have you always wanted to do television?
The pieces came together when we found a production company based in the South—a company that understood us, and being Southern, and didn’t want us to become hillbillies. There’s a certain cultural understanding that can’t be accomplished unless you find a production company that’s resident in the South. The other key ingredient was that it be an art channel (Ovation). I studied art history at Harvard, and Ted was an English major. We’re complicated dudes, who are not going to play very well on a straight-up food channel or even a straight-up travel channel.

You’ve made several television pitches before this one.
Usually a producer would come up to us and say, “You guys are great. We have to work together. How about sibling rivalries?” It was all people trying to capture reality, but reality doesn’t quite work for us.

Ted: They wanted to follow our boiled peanuts business really deeply. “Let’s go really deep into that and try to get you guys to expand and to experience really traumatic stuff, and we’ll get really deep into your psychology.”

Matt: No, I don’t want to watch that! I don’t want to experience that! Our other ideas came from our experience as recipe testers. We love writing and crafting recipes. We wanted to create some sort of television out of that, but the reality is that television doesn’t want deep exploration of a recipe. One idea was, “Your Momma’ Makes What?” We wanted to take an old recipe, delve into it, and try to make it new again, something about finding gold in old cookbooks.

Ted: Then the production company would say, “We should make that a transactional television moment where you’re offering the person an amount of money, and you’re trying to make a profit.” No! We respect that person. We respect that recipe.

Did you feel like a lot of producers were steering you towards a “Duck Dynasty,” “Honey Boo Boo” type of show.
Exactly. Production companies in the northeast or California had preconceptions about what the South is that didn’t line up with our reality.

Ted: Or they would read about us, and they would meet us and say, “Well, you guys don’t seem Southern.” We’d say, “Well, what do you mean by that?” They’d say, “Well, you don’t have twangy accents. You dress well.”

And you wear shoes!
We wear shoes! Even if they came into it thinking they’d be open to this material, you saw how many misconceptions the producers were coming in with. Our whole thing is shaking off your preconceptions and discovering things about the South you never knew existed. That’s why we’ve spent the last 15 years writing for Travel + Leisure and have never gotten bored. Most of what we write about is the South, and there are endless discoveries to be made.

Before the show, how much time had you spent in Atlanta?
Quite a bit. We’ve been here for every Atlanta Food and Wine festival.

Ted: Five years running. And every time we wrote a cookbook. With our first cookbook, we were here multiple times for some events. We’ve always loved Atlanta.

Matt: We’ve been big boosters for Atlanta and have been pitching an Atlanta feature to Travel + Leisure for the last 10 years with no real success.

Ted: We feel like there’s a dynamism that’s very unique in the South.

Matt: There seems to be less competition and more collaboration between restaurateurs and chefs. It seems like a well-gelled restaurant scene where people mostly make nice and that’s nice. In Charleston, it’s a little more of a pressure cooker. It’s just smaller so it’s more competitive.

Ted: And remember Charleston is a tourist economy, so it’s more subject to the viscidities of the economy. How many people want to spend $32 on a plate of shrimp and grits on any one night? Not a lot of expense account dining [in Charleston]. [In Atlanta], there are so many corporations and company headquarters. There’s a lot of money circulating here. Another thing that interests us about Atlanta is the ethnic diversity. Growing up, as we did, in a town that gets so much of its inspiration from the past to come to a Southern city that’s looking forward—that’s exciting to us.

Matt: Atlanta is the future of the South.

How do you think the Southern food renaissance has manifested itself in Atlanta?
Atlanta may have been the engine of it.

Ted: Absolutely. When you think about looking back and looking forward, Atlanta is fundamentally connected to the farms. It’s big agriculture. In a city like Charleston, the farmers market is a niche market. It’s there. It’s big. But here it’s just a bigger thing. Also the exciting Southern fusion crossovers that happen in Atlanta. I’m thinking of Heirloom Market BBQ and so many places along Buford Highway. Miso-braised greens. These things you find that are metabolizing an immigrant’s cuisine and Southern cuisine at the same time. That just makes sense. At the same time, it draws into relief what’s original, classic, and traditional. It’s interesting how Atlanta gets the best of all worlds.

In a previous interview, you’ve talked about New York having this Southern food renaissance in 2011 and that it had been building since 2006. My impression is that Atlanta didn’t get into the renaissance until after New York. What do you think?
If that were true—and I don’t know the timeline, but let’s presume it is—I would say that makes sense because for New York, Southern food is so much more exotic. You have more convincing to do here because the South is all around. We experienced that in Charleston. In Charleston the beginning of the renaissance didn’t happen until the 1990s because shrimp and grits were just what grandma cooked at home.

Ted: I think the way it came back around for places like Charleston and Atlanta and Nashville was seeing the way New Yorkers did it, which is so lampoonable and over the top. You have David Chang in 2006 serving a country ham tasting plate with three different kinds of ham. You can taste North Carolina! And Tennessee! And Kentucky! And compare them. That’s such an unsouthern thing. In the South, you’d look at all three and say, “The only good country ham is this one in North Carolina. I don’t want a variety. I want the one that I know and love.” That’s what Southern is, to find the thing that’s closest to you and not go down the rabbit hole and geek out on all the different kinds of ham.

I feel like mom-and-pop restaurants—those meat-and-threes—are an important part of Southern cuisine, but they’re a dying breed. What does that mean for Southern food and its traditions?
On the one hand, you see those older family restaurants struggling to stay viable and relevant. At the same time, you see smaller, newer mom-and-pops springing up here and there. This artisanal movement that’s happening might not be a meat-and-three format, but they’re mushrooming up to replace them in some fashion. I feel positive about the prospects for independently run, family, non-chain, dining experiences.

Ted: In Charleston, it’s more likely an independently owned Southern cafeteria with fish and sides and fried chicken. Places like Bertha’s and Martha Lou’s are experiencing a renewed interest from the foodie community. They were always known among locals, but now Saveur has written about them, and they’ve gotten an award from the Southern Foodways Alliance. Now they’ve become stops on a culinary tour of Charleston, and I think it has done better for their business. I would hope so.

Changing gears, I love my siblings, but I don’t know if I could work with them. How do you two do it?
We have pretty complementary dispositions. We’re not the same people, but we have similar tastes and experiences.

Ted: I can tell you what he’s going to order off the menu, and he can tell you what I’m going to order.

Matt: Just by doing the Lee brothers triangulation on what’s going to get the best story— what’s the biggest challenge to the kitchen—you’re always looking for that dish that’s going to reveal the kitchen for what it is.

Any Southern dishes you’re sick of seeing on a menu?
There isn’t a dish I wouldn’t devour if it’s done well. The most tired cliché: Fried chicken with a side of macaroni and cheese. If it’s great, there’s no harm in eating it three nights a week.

Ted: If it’s not homemade, I’m not going to reach for a red velvet cake. If somebody makes one for a house party, of course I’m going to eat it.

Matt: But if you get half an inkling that it’s vegetable oil…

Ted: Especially if they’re trying to do a deconstructed red velvet cake. Oh my god, I would just kill myself.

You once said that 2005 was the year of stone ground grits. 2006 was red velvet cake. 2007 was fried chicken. 2008 was pimento cheese. 2009 was country ham. 2010 was boiled peanuts. What will be the big Southern thing for 2015?
I thought 2014 was going to be the year of aspic, but that didn’t happen. I feel like since Hugh [Acheson] has a new book that’s mostly vegetables; Steven [Satterfield] has a new book that’s mostly vegetables; I think it’s going to be something in the vegetable space. I think it’s going to be new ways of cooking okra.

Matt: Baked radishes.

Ted: Like a radish gratin? Is it Southern?

Matt: Hell yeah.

Ted: I’m going to say okra. He’s going to say radishes.