Somewhere South with Chef Vivian Howard

LEE Initiative helps restaurants, farmers and community in Kentucky and beyond

Fans of “Somewhere South” will recognize chef Ed Lee from the dumpling episode but likely may already know the Louisville, Ky. chef and restaurant owner, award-winning book author and host of the Emmy-winning series, “The Mind of a Chef,” also on PBS. 

What people may not know is all the philanthropy work that Lee does and that work has gone into high gear during coronavirus pandemic and the protests related to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Several years ago in response to the #MeToo movement within the restaurant industry, Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek founded The LEE Initiative, which doesn’t refer to Lee’s last name but stands for Let’s Empower Employment. The LEE Initiative is a “nimble organization of restaurant leaders who would come up with creative and impactful solutions for issues in the restaurant industry,” according to the entity’s description. 

So far, that’s meant an annual Women Chefs Program, a six-month leadership development program for upcoming female chefs, and a Youth Hospitality Program, a nine-month paid internship for young adults at Lee’s restaurants in Louisville, Ky. 

Since the pandemic hit and restaurants across the country have closed, The LEE Initiative and Maker’s Mark launched The Restaurant Workers Relief Program serving 325,000 meals and distributing thousands of pounds of supplies to out-of-work restaurant workers in 19 cities across the country, including Raleigh, N.C. The meal program ended in late May at all locations except New York, which is still operating. The program revealed to LEE Initiative organizers that there are food supply chain issues across the nation and led to the creation of a new program. The Restaurant Reboot Relief Program will focus on creating and maintaining long-term relationships between restaurants and small, sustainable farms. The initiative committed $1 million to buy food from sustainable farmers in 16 regions and give that food directly to restaurants in that area. The restaurants that hosted meal relief centers will receive the food and help select other recipient restaurants. 

“The entire supply chain is broken and by investing in small farmers, we hope to help repair it and allow farmers and restaurants to rebuild together,” said Lee about the Restaurant Reboot Relief Program. 

In June, the LEE Initiative also opened the McAtee Community Kitchen, which will provide family meals, groceries, supplies and ongoing opportunities in three West Louisville neighborhoods. Chef Nikkia Rhodes, a member of the first class of chef mentees of the initiative’s Women Chefs Program, will lead the community kitchen. The kitchen is named after the late chef David McAtee, a well-known Louisville barbecue restaurant owner who was shot by police and Kentucky National Guard on June 1 during protests related to Breonna Taylor’s death and complaints about police brutality. The shooting is under investigation by federal and state authorities. 

“Chef McAtee believed in taking care of people, and that showed very clearly through his work in our community,” said Rhodes. “I want that legacy to continue five, 10, 15 years from now. I have always been inspired by chefs like him, who invest back into society around them and that’s what I want to do here. That’s exactly what we plan to do through McAtee Community Kitchen.” 

To help support these efforts, donations can be made online: