Crave, Oct 2012. Interview with Chef Susur Lee


Crave, Oct 2012. Interview with Chef Susur Lee
At 14, he moved out of his parents’ cramped
home and took a job as a dishwasher at a
restaurant serving Beijing cuisine. That year,
he also cooked professionally for the first time,
making latkes – Jewish potato and onion
pancakes – at a friend’s restaurant in Tsim
Sha Tsui. Despite burning the pancakes, Lee
continued to pursue his passion for cooking.
Two years later, he joined The Peninsula Hong
Kong, cooking mostly European dishes and
becoming a saucier at 19 years old.
Later that year, he met and married Canadian
teacher Marilou Covey, 10 years his senior,
and the couple took off backpacking through
Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In 1978,
they moved to Toronto where Covey studied
for a PhD and Lee worked as a cook. In 1983,
Covey accepted a teaching job back in Hong
Kong, deciding to go ahead of Lee to prepare
for classes. Tragically, she was on Korean Air
Lines flight 007 when it strayed off course and
was shot down by Soviet military jets. Covey
died in the crash. Bereft, Lee decided to stay
in Toronto.
is the chef-owner of four restaurants: Lee in
Toronto, Shang in New York City, Zentan in
Washington DC and Chinois in Singapore.
“In life, we make sacrifices. But even in grief,
we learn how to live in the present,” says Lee,
who picked himself up and began crafting a
career in Canada, opening his first restaurant,
Lotus, in Toronto in 1987.
It’s a family business. Lee remarried interior
designer Brenda Bent, who works on his
restaurants, and the couple has two sons,
Levi, 22, and Kai, 21. The second-generation
Lees are following in their father’s footsteps,
training under dad at his new restaurant, Bent,
which opens in Toronto in August.
“I needed the independence, the freedom to
cook whatever I wanted.”
Lotus met with astounding critical acclaim
and Lee was heralded as the pioneer of
fusion cuisine in Canada. But in 1997, though
Lotus was still thriving, Lee decided to shut it
down to travel and “re-energise” himself as a
consultant for hotels and restaurants such as
the Singapore-based Tung Lok Group. In 2000,
he returned to the restaurant business with
Susur in Toronto (since closed) and today he
“We work well as a family, because we accept
that different members are good at different
things. No matter how much we get mad with
each other, we are always unified. We learn
how to work things out,” Lee says.
“I also teach my boys about their culture and
Asian roots. Once Levi asked me to write ‘Lee’
in Chinese characters for him. He ended up
getting it tattooed on his chest.”
My Favourite Things with Susur Lee
1. If you weren’t a chef, what
would you be?
4. Where and what do you like
to eat in Hong Kong?
I would be a very good tailor … Dolce &
Gabbana good.
It would have to be Fusion 5th Floor at
The Pemberton in Sheung Wan. But I can’t
decide on a favourite dish – there are too
many I like.
Clockwise from far left: Chef Susur Lee; Chinois in Singapore; Peking duck; Singapore coleslaw
2. What’s your favourite film?
Anything with Bruce Lee.
Text by Michele Koh Morollo
ith his long, silky hair and gentle
brooding features, everything
about Hong Kong-born,
Canada-based chef-restaurateur Susur Lee
says “rebel”. However, his rebelliousness
is not without a cause – going against
the grain has worked well for the youthfullooking 54-year-old.
This sense of adventure characterises his
cooking, which combines the epicurean
traditions of China and Southeast Asia
with the classical techniques of France.
It’s a style that has made him a media
darling and star chef in North America,
and put his establishments on “best
restaurant” lists worldwide.
That free spirit is apparent in his cooking.
Instead of traditional dishes, he creates
innovative fusion tasting menus from
whatever inspires him at the market
each morning.
Along with TV chefs Martin Yan (Yan Can
Cook) and Ming Tsai (Simply Ming), Lee is
one of the few Asian chefs to make a big
impression on TV producers, viewers and
diners in the West. He battled Bobby Flay
on the Food Network’s Iron Chef, holding
him to a draw, and earned the highest score
in Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters. He was
proclaimed “a culinary genius” by Zagat
restaurant bible, and food magazines have
referred to him as “an improvisational artist”
and “chef of the millennium”.
“I don’t like office work,” he says. “I like
sensory adventures. I’m motivated by
my senses – new smells, new tastes,
new sights – that’s what gets me going.
I seek instant gratification, which is
perhaps not typical of most Asians.”
His humble beginnings and meteoric
rise to stardom bring to mind another
Lee – the kung fu icon Bruce, who
happens to be one of Susur’s biggest
idols. The youngest of six children,
Susur Lee was born in Lai Chi Kok
in 1958. His mother was a “tea lady”
for the British army and a terrible cook,
so his father often took the family out
for dim sum, or to eat in Kowloon’s dai
pai dongs and cha chaan tangs.
“When I opened the window in the
mornings, I would be able to smell the
street food, which would always work up
my appetite,” Lee recalls. “Dim sum was
my introduction to the world of good food.
Through repeated exposure to har gau,
turnip cakes and all the other varieties,
I learned about the different cooking methods
– steaming, frying, sautéing and grilling.”
Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods. He travels
all over the world and explains food in a way
that I can taste it. The curiosity he shares with
his viewers with regard to exotic foods is a great
way to bridge cultures through cuisine.
3. What’s your dream holiday?
It would be a vacation in Bali with my family.
My youngest son, Kai, was too young to
remember our travels through Asia when
we were there last, so I would like him to
experience it again.
Fusion 5th Floor
From humble beginnings in Kowloon, Susur Lee has become a North American
culinary superstar. He explains how travel and tragedy helped shape his career.
6. Among celebrity chefs, who do
you admire most?
fusion 5th floor
Tina Wong
came up and told me it was too dangerous
to sleep there. She took me home and let
me sleep on her couch. As soon as the
sun came up, she sent me home.
5. Where’s your favourite place
in Hong Kong?
I really like the old colonial clock tower
outside Star Ferry. When I was a boy, I ran
away from home for a night and ended
up sleeping there. But a “working girl”
andrew zimmern