Home for the Holidays

Katie Lee may be a famous chef and budding author, but no matter where her career takes her, she will always call Huntington home.

By Katherine Reasons-Pyles

Katie Lee - Home for the Holidays

For Milton native and food and lifestyle expert Katie Lee, there’s just nothing quite like coming home – and we aren’t talking about her 6,700-square-foot house in the Hamptons. From her signature Southern cooking style to her frequent trips back to “the most underrated state in the country,” there’s no doubt that Lee is proud of her Appalachian heritage.

“I love being in West Virginia,” says Lee, whose expansive résumé includes two cookbooks, numerous TV appearances and most recently a novel. “My schedule is pretty crazy, but I try to come home to see my family as much as I can. I usually come back in the fall; I love to watch the leaves change. And it’s so nice to come home during the holidays, to relax and visit with the whole family.”

Lee’s family includes numerous aunts, uncles and cousins throughout the Huntington and Milton area – all of whom are chefs in their own right.

“The whole family, extended family, everybody – we all probably think a little too much about food,” says Kim Becker, Lee’s mom. “We were foodies before the phrase was coined.”

But ever since Lee can remember, family gatherings have centered around one person: Dora Harshbarger, her 79-year-old grandmother.

“My mom has been a schoolteacher for as long as I’ve been alive, so when I was very young my grandma was my babysitter,” Lee says. “She was always in the kitchen making something, and one of my earliest memories is of making biscuits with her in the morning. I would get so upset if she started on the dough before I woke up; I would make her start over so that I could help. Biscuits were the first thing I ever made, so I guess technically I started cooking at the age of 3.”

Katie Lee - Home for the Holidays

A delicious biscuit recipe is not the only thing Lee has carried with her from all that time with Grandma Dora.

“She taught me to believe I could do anything I wanted to do,” Lee says. “She was such a strong woman; she always spoke her mind. Someone told me once that I have a ‘thick skin’; if I do, it’s because of her. She’s the reason I’m a strong person.”

Lee gradually started cooking more complicated things, both at her grandmother’s house and at home with her mom. Becker says from the beginning, the whole family was impressed with Lee’s talent in the kitchen; however, not all of her cooking projects were instant hits.

“I remember coming home one afternoon in July, when Katie was probably just 9 years old, and she had gotten out all of our Christmas decorations,” Becker says, laughing at the memory. “She had decorated the house and had Christmas music on, and the kitchen was a wreck from where she was making Christmas cookies. There was flour everywhere. I was not in the Christmas spirit.”

At the age of 12, Lee recorded her first cooking demonstration – videotaped by her mom and played in front of a proud audience of family and friends. The Food Network had just launched, and inspired by the chefs on TV, Lee prepared a dinner of beef stroganoff for the camera. Becker recorded Lee as she walked her audience through the steps of preparing the dish, then as she demonstrated the proper way to set the table.

Katie Lee - Home for the Holidays

But according to Lee, cooking was always merely a hobby; it was just something she grew up doing.

“All of our meals were home cooked,” she recalls, “and to be honest I just thought everybody was like that; you get up and have a big breakfast, then you come home to a home-cooked dinner. Food was a big part of my life, but I never thought that was anything special. When I got to college and saw that my friends didn’t know how to do things like fry an egg, I couldn’t believe it – I just assumed everyone liked to cook as much as I did.”

Lee attended Milton Elementary School, Milton Middle School and Cabell Midland High School. She says she did not participate in sports, which gave her a lot of free time to explore her two loves – cooking and writing.

“I was never athletic. I tried everything, but I just wasn’t good,” Lee laughs. “Reading and writing were things I really enjoyed, though; I always had my nose in a book. And yes, every day I wake up and feel so lucky to have the job that I have, to have been able to make a career out of cooking and writing.”

Katie Lee - Home for the Holidays

From high school English classes where she would “just take off and write” to her carefully prepared letters to the editor of The Herald-Dispatch on animal cruelty, the decision to major in English and journalism in college came easy for Lee. She graduated with a double-major in 2003 from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. While there, she studied abroad in Florence; in 2004 she returned to her classroom in Italy to teach American students about dining in Tuscany.

After graduation, Lee began to pursue her cooking interests. She moved to the Hamptons and began to work at Jeff & Eddy’s Restaurant as a fishmonger. While working at the popular restaurant and fish market, she submitted some of her writing samples to Hamptons magazine and was asked to write a weekly column for the popular publication. That same year, just before graduation, Lee’s life was forever changed when she bumped into one of the most successful recording artists of all time, Billy Joel. While out for a night on the town with a girlfriend, Lee met Joel and the pair instantly hit it off.

“It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things that really could only happen in New York,” Lee says. “We just kind of bumped into each other.”

One year later, Lee and Joel were married. For their second anniversary, Joel released a single entitled All My Life, his first song with lyrics since 1993’s River of Dreams album. The two appeared at numerous red carpet events together; and as Joel’s beautiful young wife, Lee began to make a name for herself as both a food critic and a chef.

“I’m the first person to say having [Joel’s] last name helped me get a foot in the door,” Lee said in an interview with New York magazine, “but I feel like I can stand on my own two feet working toward my dreams.”

Katie Lee - Home for the Holidays

In 2005, Lee launched a foodie website called OliveAndPeach.com with friend Aleishall Girard-Maxon, and she was asked in 2006 to host the first season of Bravo’s hit reality series Top Chef, a gig Lee recalls as “an incredible learning experience and a real whirlwind.” From there, she began to work seriously on her first cookbook, The Comfort Table.

“I had never been on TV, and although Top Chef was a good learning experience, it was not the right job for me,” Lee says. “But I’m glad I did it, because that experience led me to write my first cookbook. Writing The Comfort Table was a dream come true for me.”

Katie Lee - Home for the Holidays

The Comfort Table, published in 2008, sold 33,000 copies, a success by industry standards; Lee followed up her best-seller in 2009 with The Comfort Table: Recipes for Everyday Occasions, which featured more of her  signature recipes as well as full menus, décor suggestions and iPod playlists to complement the theme of each meal. However, just a few months before her second cookbook was published, her five-year marriage to Joel ended in a very public divorce.

“Close friends and family can pull you through just about anything,” Lee says confidently. “I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my friends – and a lot of late nights with the brownie pan. But I truly believe time heals everything, and I’m grateful that Bill and I are part of that small percentage of divorces that end in friendship. Bill and I are very good friends; we were fated to be in each other’s lives, just maybe not fated to be married.”

The past few years have been nonstop excitement for Lee. Her career as a chef has blossomed. She is the food and lifestyle contributor for The Early Show and writes a regular column for Cosmopolitan. She was asked in 2010 to return as a guest judge on Top Chef. She has appeared on Oprah, CBS Sunday Morning, The Talk, The Rachael Ray Show, The Nate Berkus Show and Iron Chef America and has been featured in magazines such as People, Vanity Fair, Food and Wine, Town & Country and InStyle. She has continued in her career as a journalist, writing articles for Hamptons magazine and most recently conducting an in-depth interview with her good friend Paula Deen for The Early Show that aired last month.

She has even found time to write a novel, published in June. (Lee will be at the Huntington Mall’s grand reopening on December 4 for a book signing.) Her fiction debut, Groundswell, tells the story of a small-town girl with big dreams named Emma, whose marriage to a celebrity catapults her into the out-of-this-world lifestyle of the rich and famous. Lee’s protagonist, an aspiring screenwriter, suffers the ultimate betrayal when her husband cheats on her with her best friend. But like all good love stories, Emma emerges as stronger than ever; in a romantic beach town in Mexico, she finds healing – and love – through surfing.

“I know people want to read the book and think that it’s about my life, but it is totally fiction; I don’t look at it as being autobiographical at all,” says Lee, who, like her main character, did take up surfing recently. “Of course I drew experiences from my own life and the lives of my friends – I mean, some of the stuff that’s in there are things you just can’t make up – but the story of Emma is all her own. Writing this book takes me back to why I loved reading so much as a kid; while I was writing this book, for just a few hours a day, I got to go into someone else’s world and live someone else’s life.”

From celebrity chef to red-carpet beauty to novelist, all before her 30th birthday, Lee says she is amazed at the way her life has already turned out – and she is unbelievably happy to be where she is. When she’s at her home in the Hamptons, she enjoys shopping for groceries at local farm stands and fish markets and spending time with her dogs.

“Believe it or not, the Hamptons remind me a lot of West Virginia,” she says. “People always think of glitz and glamour when they hear ‘the Hamptons,’ but it actually has a really small-town feel. There’s a lot of farmland and a big agricultural business, with families who’ve owned these farms for hundreds of years. This is a real epicenter for the ‘farm-to-table’ movement, which I love. I know my neighbors, and most of the food I eat comes from where I live.”

Katie Lee - Home for the Holidays

In an example of life imitating art, Lee says one of her remaining goals is to write a screenplay, a goal inspired by Groundswell’s Emma. She has toyed around with the idea of writing another cookbook with more vegetarian and health-conscious options and has even considered opening up a restaurant. Her friends and family back home say they are confident that the Katie Lee they know and love will continue doing exactly what she’s meant to do – succeed.

“Katie is the kind of person that will keep working until she gets where she wants to be,” says Alicia Ghiz, who met Lee at a pajama party at the Milton Library a few weeks before they started kindergarten and has been one of Lee’s closest friends ever since. “I never would’ve imagined all the paths her life has taken, but honestly I’m not surprised by any of it. She has always been someone who can do whatever she sets her mind to doing. For me to pick up the phone and call her today, it’s the same as calling her when we were growing up; she’s still the same Katie she always was.”

“I miss having Katie here in West Virginia, but it helps to know how happy she is,” Becker says. “She loves doing what she does and living where she lives, and we still get to see each other several times a year. We probably talk every other day, and we email each other all the time; that’s something we’ve done since she left for college. She emailed me every day in college, and I saved every single message. I’ve got a whole folder of saved emails, and each one shows her growing up just a little bit more.”

Although Lee’s entire childhood was spent in Milton, her mother and stepfather have moved to the South Side of Huntington. But that’s totally fine with Lee; it just means she’s closer to her favorite Huntington restaurant, Jim’s Steak & Spaghetti House.

“When I come home, the first thing I do is plan out where we’re going to eat,” Lee says. “I have to go to Jim’s. I think the reason I love it so much is because I still remember going with my mom as a little girl, ordering spaghetti and coloring on their placemats with the smiley faces. And I don’t know why, but I think their Coca-Cola tastes better than anyone else’s. I always order the fish sandwich; I put the coleslaw on top and ask for extra pickles – and a piece of chocolate pie.”

So, if a true Huntingtonian is one who has a favorite dish at Jim’s, Katie Lee is one without question. And no matter how far she goes, she’ll always come back – because like so many Huntingtonians who have left, to her, this will always be home.

return to articles menu