Susur Lee Masterchef By Matthew Wong
“I believe everyone should work in a restaurant once in their lifetime. You learn how to learn.” – Susur Lee
He’s right! Working in a kitchen during a chaotic dinner shift, you learn to take criticism, work as a team and work under pressure, all while trying to pump out dish after dish of delicious perfection.
Whether you know him from his restaurants Bent, Lee Luckee, Lee Airport, or participating in Top Chef, or as that guy with the pony tail who says mean things on the reality television series Chopped, Chef Susur Lee is a fixture in the city. From his beginnings as an apprentice in the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, to being known as the Godfather of fusion cuisine, Chef Lee is the epitome of a successful chef with a continuing desire to improve his craft. Overseeing a monopoly of family-run restaurants and consulting for numerous restaurants worldwide, it’s not uncommon to find Chef Lee hop on the line at any of his restaurants to work a busy dinner service. The kitchen, no matter how hot, hard, and chaotic it can get, is where he belongs. It’s easily identifiable that for Susur, the kitchen is more than a collection of stoves, pots, pans and dishes. It is an institution of learning, of culture, discipline and craftsmanship.
Art Direction: Terry Lau
Photography: Hiep Vu
Writer/Interviewer: Matthew Wong
Designer: Tala El Hallak
Fashion Editors: Drew Brown & Celia Fernandez
Photography Assistant: Louis Au
Digital Retoucher: Dave Jackson
“My foundation has to have the original recipe, like a triangle. The base is East and West, and then you begin to build it up.” – Susur Lee
Is visual appeal something that should matter in every type of cuisine?
Well, you know food should tell a story, because food has culture. Being a chef with Asian roots, I am very proud of my roots and I still eat Asian food all the time. It’s my comfort zone and my food always has that flavour. You have to be true to yourself when you make a dish. I ask myself why am I making this dish, and the answer is because it has some sort of history. You can’t just cook food. There are some chefs who cook things very randomly, and I am not one of those chefs. Everything I cook has to have a purpose. It has to be synchronized with flavour, colour and great taste.
Has the title of being a Celebrity Chef altered the way people perceive your food and restaurants?
First of all, being a celebrity chef is not a job, it’s a title that people give you. Yes, you’ve earned it but you are still a performer. I don’t like to use the word celebrity chef, I would rather use the word Master Chef, and I will explain why. Growing up, Bruce Lee was my idol, he was the Master; and as a master, you have to know and master a lot of different crafts. Bruce Lee was a martial artist that mixed together a wide variety of different martial arts. The way I grew up, I wanted to adapt his mentality of blending different crafts together.
I don’t really think about being a celebrity chef too much. I love what I do. It’s great to go to other restaurants and have other chefs send you dishes, you feel quite proud, but what’s greater than the free food is the respect.
What sources, people, and experiences have you been inspired from?
Growing up in Hong Kong in my time, you work in the kitchen because you are uneducated, you don’t like to go to school, and the kitchen is a job that is greasy and dirty; it’s not a good lifestyle. My mother was not a very good cook, but it was actually my father who influenced me. Not by telling me that I should be in the kitchen, but he influenced me by bringing me to a dim sum restaurant, and I was allowed to taste everything. I picked up from my father who would eat dim sum with me, and critique each dish saying, “this is too sour, this is too salty” and I was able to pick up on that.
You know some people grow up with a very specific attention to certain details, whether it is colour, sound, taste, or craft, and I believe in that. I was born with a sense of food. You put a bunch of things on the table, all these things, gadgets, and food, and I would instantly reach for the food. And of course I love eating, and the art of tasting for me is very sensuous and something that has given me a lot of memories. It’s also good later on in life, when you become a chef, and you remember all these tastes and colours from the market, and you start pulling on these things to make a plate.
What is the most perfect and complete experience that people should have when going to a restaurant?
The most important aspect of any restaurant experience is hospitality. Starting with the way you welcome people when they call for a reservation. There are so many “cool” restaurants in Toronto, but sometimes you don’t get the right service. You want to go to a restaurant to be taken care of, in terms of the quality of food, where you sit, where you and your friends are happy and so forth, because people go to restaurants to escape their own environment, you don’t want to stay at home.
Everything is very important from the smell of the restaurant, to the interior, the concept, and of course the food. The way I see it, I am still very traditional: when I go to restaurants, there are certain rules that should be there, like how clean the restaurant is. Does the restaurant have a certain smell? Does the Chef cooking my food have dirty nails? It’s called standards. There are a lot of restaurants that I feel don’t care about all those things. It’s ok to be a “cool” restaurant, but “cool” has to be professional.
How are you able to fuse both Asian and Western cultures together so effortlessly?
I’m very proud to be Asian, and being trained in both Chinese and French cooking, that is really my foundation, so the blending of Eastern and Western cultures comes very naturally to me. Being very open minded, being Westernized, being European, and understanding what they like to eat and how their dishes work. Being Chinese, being Northern and Southern Chinese, I never think that Eastern food is better than Western food or vice versa. My foundation has to have the original recipe, like a triangle, the base is East and West, and then you begin to build it up. There are many chefs who have tried fusion food, who have tried but failed, because there simply is no base. All they think about is using a little lemon grass, a little soy sauce, some bok choi, and put it with a steak; it’s not that simple, you have to have the cultural roots.Home