It’s just Katie Lee now: It says so right there on the cover of The Comfort Table: Recipes for Everyday Occasions, her new comfort-food cookbook and the cornerstone of her branding ambitions now that she’s no longer the much younger wife of Billy Joel. “I never grew up with money, and I never wanted a lot of material things,” says Lee, 28, over coffee in the lobby of the Ace Hotel, dressed in black leggings, a floral Urban Outfitters top, and worn suede ballet flats. Seven years ago, the Milton, West Virginia, native was at the Peninsula Hotel with a girlfriend when they bumped into Joel as they were coming out of the bathroom. She didn’t really know who he was, but her friend did and suggested they all go to the bar for a drink. At the time, she was a journalism and food-science student at Miami University in Ohio.
“My mom played a lot of Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, and the Rolling Stones, but I didn’t know much of Billy’s music,” she recalls. “After we met, I went out and bought his Greatest Hits because I thought I should know what he did.” The pair married the following year, and she inspired him to write “All My Life” (“All my life / I’ve searched this whole world through / Try as I might / To find someone like you”).
“Being with someone so famous is an adjustment,” she admits. She learned not to Google herself. Soon she was hosting Top Chef and writing a food column for Cosmopolitan. She’s been a special correspondent on Extra, had a gig on the CBS Early Show, been welcomed on Martha Stewart’s show, and became buddies with Paula Deen (“my fairy godmother”) and Rachael Ray. Why does she think everyone embraced her immediately?
“Jeez, that’s a good question,” she says, shrugging. “I’m the first person to say having that last name helped me get a foot in the door, but I feel like I can stand on my own two feet working toward my dreams.” She hopes to have her own TV show and burger restaurant in New York. It could all happen before she hits 30.
She’s dropped Joel’s name, but, she says, “I want the best for him, and I think he wants the best for me.” Her lifestyle’s changed. “You make adjustments, but everybody is going through change now,” she says. She now lives in the West Village.
These days, her focus is work, specifically comfort food, though she doesn’t look as if she eats much meat loaf herself. She insists that wild nights are behind her and that she isn’t even dating. “I’m not ready yet; ask me in a couple of months. I don’t put myself out there—I’m really a homebody.” But wasn’t her desire to have a friskier twentysomething’s social life the reason cited in the press for their breakup? “If a friend has an opening, I like to go out to support the person,” she says. The reason for their split, as she sees it, was that “between both of our careers, we started to grow apart and were unable to find a way back to each other.”