At age 33, Water Mill resident Katie Lee has written three cookbooks and one novel, she is a co-host on Food Network’s Saturday morning hit The Kitchen and has appeared in numerous other television programs. One might expect an affected Hamptons celebrity. Nothing could be further from reality. Born and raised in Milton, West Virginia, Lee is as down to earth as hominy grits on a Sunday morning and as refreshing as sweet tea on a hot summer afternoon.
Flash back to the summer of 2003; Lee was dating an islander named Bill and thought she was just coming to Long Island for a summer visit. A tenderfoot to our island, her preconceived notions of a glitzy and glamorous resort were dashed when she discovered rural farms, pristine beaches and a bounteous foodshed. “Out of everywhere I have traveled, this feels like home to me now,” she says. “We have the most beautiful beaches, and it’s a food mecca. You can truly eat farm-to-table here. It’s not a fad. It’s real, down to the wine and sea salt.”
Now a Long Islander, heart, soul and belly, several years ago Lee bought a large comfortable home in Water Mill with a to-die-for chef-friendly kitchen. She changed out the laundry room, adding a spacious butler’s pantry with a second refrigerator and oven. A summer entertaining enthusiast, she built an outdoor kitchen with a huge grill, refrigerator and a Wood Stone pizza oven. Lee’s commitment to locavore entertaining includes a dual tap kegerator. One tap dispenses Bridge Lane Rosé (“I love rosé, it’s our Kool-Aid; I drink it all summer long, it’s so versatile”) and the other Montauk Brewing Company’s Summer Ale. Her two acres are beautifully landscaped with billowy hydrangeas, ornamental grasses and such, but there is no vegetable garden. This devotee to Long Island agriculture would rather buy her corn, tomatoes and stone fruit from local farms. “Honestly,” she says, “vegetable gardens give me a little anxiety so I asked myself ‘why am I trying to do a vegetable garden when the best farmers in the world are just minutes away?’ I would much rather support them.”
Lee is unabashedly obsessed with summer. “I never got over that feeling as a kid,” she says. A typical summer day? “Surf, shop at the Green Thumb in Water Mill and come home and cook.” She took up surfing six years ago. “It changed my life and made me see a whole new side of the East End.” Her first novel, Groundswell, released in 2011, is an ideal beach-read in an eat-surf-love genre. Lee’s first two cookbooks, The Comfort Table and The Comfort Table: Recipes for Everyday Occasions, are testament to her West Virginia roots and the comfort of a home-cooked meal. Her Endless Summer Cookbook, released this April, is an homage to summer and her Hamptons home. Each ingredient, in each meal, tells a story. From huevos rancheros with eggs from Iacono Farm to peach blueberry skillet cobbler with fruit from the Green Thumb, Lee serves her passion for everyone’s favorite season in this mouthwatering home-cook friendly read. During our visit in the kitchen with Lee, we were treated to grilled spatchcocked chicken with harissa yogurt sauce, Moroccan carrots and lemony brown rice with cucumber and feta, all locally sourced and well worth the seasonal wait.
Lee eats in way more than she eats out (“unless it’s a special occasion at Dave’s Grill in Montauk; I love that place!”), so she’s in her indoor or outdoor kitchen every day. She also shops every day. A quick peek into her massive refrigerator doesn’t reveal much except for some bottled water and a few leftovers. Daily visits to her favorite farm stands and markets guarantee the freshest ingredients and are a part of her summer routine that she pines for from November to May.
This single-minded dedication to cooking, eating and entertaining seasonally is deeply rooted in Lee’s country upbringing. “I grew up in a food-obsessed house,” she says. “We had big weekend breakfasts of buttermilk biscuits, sausage gravy and grits. Everyone in my family lived near us: my aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents. My grandmother Dora and my great-grandmother Pearl inspired me.” Snooping around Katie’s living room, I spy a black and white photo of a woman holding a large fish. “That’s my great-grandmother Pearl,” says Lee. “She loved deep-sea fishing and once won a KitchenAid standing mixer with her angel food cake recipe.”
Thank you Pearl for bestowing your love of cooking on your great-granddaughter. Long Island’s culinary landscape is just a bit richer because of you.
For Katie’s recipes for spatchcocked chicken and Moroccan carrots, click here.