A Ponytail of Two Cities: Susur Lee Takes Manhattan
Although New York critics may vehemently disagree, I find it impossible not to be charmed by Susur Lee. He starts our interview by offering me some of his granola - truthfully I was hoping for some dinnertime gems from the kitchen, but I think it's sweet the way he scoops his breakfast from his bowl to mine, making sure I'm fed and watered before the business of interviewing begins.
Susur Lee is no stranger to the press. The darling of Canada's foodie community, Susur is a household name even among those (like me) who can't afford his heavily praised Asian-fusion creations. Rising to Toronto stardom with the well-lauded Lotus, Chef Lee hit the celebrity jackpot on opening his eponymous Susur in 2000, followed by equally well-received Lee in 2004.
Ignoring the outcry from Toronto foodies, last summer Lee traded his Canadian fame for the bright lights of Manhattan, opening the much-anticipated Shang in the Thompson LES Hotel. Located in a rapidly gentrifying pocket of grunge-lux hipsterdom, Shang hasn't garnered the adulation and praise Chef Lee is used to receiving from reviewers.
Never mind the bad press: the Susur Lee I met was calm, self-assured and extraordinarily friendly. Several times he thanked me for meeting him, staying to chat long after my tape had run out, and querying my thoughts on the origin of language, the nature of happiness, and the best way to eat chicken feet.
Neither the beleaguered chef of brutal New York Times reviews, nor the cocky Atlas astride "the fickle universe of celebrity chef-dom", (as his website describes him), the Susur Lee I spoke with displayed passion for work and family, curiosity about human nature, and a generosity of will and spirit that made our interview a delightful way to spend a sunny Manhattan afternoon.
Here's Susur Lee on his departure from Toronto, life in Manhattan, his reaction to tepid reviews and his thoughts on success.
Toronto misses you. What do you miss about Toronto?
I don't have very much time to miss Toronto right now. I want to do something really great to represent Canada, and focus on doing a great job in New York. Susur has been closed almost 6 or 7 months, and my mission is now different. I'm thinking about coming here to do my very best, and being proud to be a Canadian and doing very well here.
What is it about you or your cooking that represents Canada?
Well, my style has always been welcoming... when I'm in Canada, [that's what] makes me successful. I'm bringing [that success] to New York. [My style] is still continuing to grow in a very positive way--because, of course, you know... you're building a new team, and you're a new kid in town. [New York] is such a huge city internationally. It's not like in Toronto, where there's not such a wide range of press you have to deal with.
What are the biggest differences between the New York and Toronto food scenes?
For dining, I don't see any differences in what I do, because I haven't changed what I do in Toronto for New York. It has always been about customers: I have repeat customers coming back so often, bringing friends - it's been very word-of-mouth, too. We've had very steady business since I opened, and I'm quite happy seeing growth even in this economy. The difference is that there's more people here - there's just more voices, and more people will tell you what they really like. They're either very supportive or they're not supportive at all--there is no in-between, no "oh, it's alright." There is no such thing as alright in New York. It's very good or it's not very good. In that way, it's very different because you're putting yourself on the world stage, and somebody's watching you, in the eye of the world. I wish I liked that.
Do you think it's more challenging in New York? I mean, it's definitely more competitive: is that a challenge?
Is it more challenging here? Yes. Oh, yes.
Do you think that New York tastes are more sophisticated? Every major city has a kind of inferiority complex when it comes to New York...
Well it's such a cool city. When you talk about people who live in New York, sometimes they're coming from different parts of the world. Yeah, of course there's always sophisticated people out there, [but] it's no different than in Toronto - it's the same thing. It's important to see the restaurant full every night. That's what we're experiencing [and] that makes me very excited, and happy.
The mayor of New York came to dinner, and I met with him. I met one of my favourite actors. Ed Baldwin? Baldwin? How do you pronounce his name? Big guy. I think, Eddie Baldwin?
Is he one of the brothers? Alec Baldwin?
Alex, yes! I'm not very big with movie stars' names. I know him to see him--he's one of my favourites. He's very funny.
I read a blogger who said New York doesn't understand you the way Toronto understands you. What do you have to say to that?
Well, I was in Toronto almost 30 years. Obviously, I've become a Canadian, amongst Canadians... so of course there is a common culture and a lifestyle--people understand each other.
New York doesn't understand me? Do you know how long it took me in Canada to get to where I am? Many, many, many years. And of course, you know, after just three months, people are not going to get to know me. They have to slowly get to know me. I hope we're heading in that direction. You know, I believe in what I do and I move forward. You have to be very tough; you know you can't listen to shit. I been around the world so many times... it's just psychological stuff. But how you perform every night is what people experience, and that's what is most important.
I understand you've been to Singapore recently, studying fusion. Tell me about the future of fusion.
I try to understand how other cultures present their food, their ways and habits of eating, and the taste of what they achieve. Fusion can be anywhere in the world; people are mixing anything and everything. I think it's great - it makes the world a little bit closer. People. You know? [Fusion] is a way to create communication. Now you're not limited, and have no excuses like "Oh, I don't eat or like that kind of food, because I'm this". There is some prejudice in dining, and fusion really breaks boundaries in social behaviour, and ways of thinking. I think it's great... food is such an amazing experience you would never learn from a book. It's emotional - taking you to a different time, a different place, recalling moments...
Aside from what you're doing, is the Chinese food here in New York different from the Chinese food in Toronto?
It's a bit different. The style of food here is more Cantonese... like old-style Cantonese, whereas in Toronto the style comes mostly from Hong Kong-style Chinese.
Do you consider yourself successful? And, what does success mean to you?
I have different meanings of success for different parts of my life. 18 years [ago], success was about my children... my family. You know, they are healthy, they are smart, they have goals, and they even want to experiment. They are loving, they still treat me like a best friend, miss me, talk to me, make time for me, and want to hang out with me. These are some of my greatest successes in life.
Because so many other things have brought me down, I always remember that those successes are really the foundation. Let's put it this way: if my job is successful, [but] my children are depressed and want to kill themselves, what does that mean? There is no success in that. You're just one little cell in the plant that's moving around, and if you die tomorrow there's nothing - nobody gives a shit about you. My great successes are my children. They make me want to work hard. I want them to be proud of me, and that's what motivates me. That's one part.
Now, the other part of success is the continuation to live for what I'm interested in - what I do... cooking , creating, learning, and experimenting... continuing my work, and still being interested. Waking up and thinking, "I hate my job, I actually don't love food, and I don't like eating"... that would not make for a very successful life.
Sure, but it's a pretty common way to live...
Well, that's what I'm finding out more and more. Through all these years, there have been a lot of people that [are] living in the system, not understanding... it doesn't' have to be extravagant. In my life I think, " I accept it, it's the way I want it to be, and my spirit is free". I feel that I have many experiences with this kind of success, [and] it makes me strong. I know how to escape, and not to be bogged down by life. When people write [negatively] about me, I don't go out and say, "Ah, I'm just gonna drink." I say to myself, "I'm not feeling very good, I'm going downstairs, I'm going for a run, I'm going to exercise and take some time to stretch." After that, you really have this sense of calmness. And then that decision you're going to make that evening is far clearer. You have a glow on that evening, and you perform better. If you're a leader, you have to show leadership, you have to show strength, and you have to show humour, in order to have your staff continue. I was a cook before, and when I saw that my chef was down, it brought me down too. You're really emotional people when you cook, and it affects you.
Next, I have a personal question. When I travel I always try to pick up unique ingredients; something I can't get at home. Can you recommend anything?
You know, Toronto has a really great selection when it comes to South East Asian ingredients. I must say... Vietnamese food is way better in Toronto. Waaaay better.
Where do you go for pho in Toronto?
People talk about Golden Turtle, but there's one place a little bit further south on Ossington....poor store and family kind of runs it...
Pho Tien Thanh? The broth has an almost cinnamon-y flavour?
Yah...it's more pungent. I love that.
Is there anything else you'd like to get out there?
I think it's unfair when somebody like the National Post, writes about the bad write-ups I've had, but they don't look at the good write-ups I've had. I'm trying to understand the newspaper business. I remember one reviewer saying, "Well, we have been very supportive". But now you don't want to be supportive? What does that mean? We've been very nice to him... let's screw him around a little bit now. Don't they want to see a Canadian do well? You know? I have been in the city of Toronto, and for so many years in business - [it's] always been something good for the city, and part of that makes the city exciting. I felt a little disturbed by it all, and a little angered by it. As a national paper, it's become a little bit too small thinking, and they don't understand the city in that way. It's a challenge - one that I like. But at the same time, it doesn't change my way of thinking, and it doesn't change my way of cooking. I'm just pushing forward.