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Lee Craven: Madidi, Clarksdale.

"The essence of Southern cooking lies in its simplicity--that and its ability to transport you home, no matter how far from there you may wander," says Lee Craven, executive chef at Madidi restaurant in Clarksdale. Madidi, owned by actor Morgan Freeman and businessman Bill Luckett, has become a star in the Delta under Craven's guidance. Born and raised in Florence, Alabama, Craven left the South to study at the famed Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. After graduation, he landed a plum job at Memphis' only four-star restaurant, Chez Philippe, where he worked under the tutelage of Chef Jos6 Gutierrez. Craven and his wife, Jacqueline, were lured to Madidi in 2003. The restaurant is set in a turn-of-the-century building in downtown Clarksdale, and Craven's menu includes elegant offerings such as roasted rack of lamb and "mignon" of sea bass.

Q What route did you take before attending culinary school? What happened after graduation?

A I was accepted to the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York, and graduated in 1999. Before that, I had been working in restaurants since I was 16. I left home about that time and had bills to pay, so I started out in a tiny Italian restaurant waiting tables but was fired after three weeks. Next, I washed dishes at Quincy's in Florence, where they let me cook the potatoes and set plates and I finally was allowed to grill the steaks, and that was fun. After that, I worked in a bistro and realized I had a real feel for cooking. The obvious next step was to apply to culinary school. My internship under Chef Jose at Chez Philippe at The Peabody in Memphis was probably my biggest opportunity and honor as a student.

Q What or who has been your biggest food inspiration?

A Food inspirations for me can come in many forms--mainly from people who put their hearts into what they do, whether it be art, perhaps sculpting, or cooking. What they cook is irrelevant. How they cook can inspire great ideas and take ordinary cuisine to another level.

Q Any thoughts on the influence of the Food Network on aspiring chefs?

A I think the Food Network has helped propel the industry; it gets people involved in my passion, so how can it be wrong? Are there more hacks on TV now than before? Yes; but there is a good deal of talent there, also. Some claim to be chefs but are TV personalities; some are just "lifestyle gurus" and should be judged by that, not by their culinary methods, whether they are good or bad.

Q Do you have a signature dish, and can we have the recipe?

A This is a great one to be able to pull Out of your hat and is extremely popular at Madidi.

24 ounces chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 cup butter
1 quart heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and halved
2 eggs
1/4 cup Godiva chocolate liqueur (optional)
1 tablespoon cinnamon
24 ounces flour

Prepare eight to ten 4-ounce ramekins
with baking spray. Place chocolate and butter
in a heat-proof bowl. Bring cream and
vanilla bean to a boil. Pour hot cream over
chocolate and butter, and continue stirring
until smooth and completely melted. Whisk
eggs to combine, and slowly stir in about
1/4 cup melted chocolate to warm eggs, then
stir egg mixture back into chocolate-cream
mixture. Add liqueur, if desired. Slowly stir in
cinnamon and flour until smooth, but do not
overmix. Spoon chocolate mixture into each
ramekin, and level the mixture with the top
of the ramekin. Refrigerate for about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place ramekins
on a cookie sheet, and bake for 15 minutes.
Allow to cool for about 2 minutes; the
tops will crack lightly while cooling. Invert
ramekins onto plates, and remove cakes.
Serve with ice cream.
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Title Annotation:mississippi chef profile
Author:Hines, Emily
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 2007
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