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Get to know a Chef: Susur Lee

Posted by Liora Ipsum / April 16, 2014

Susur LeeSusur Lee might just be one of Toronto's most recognizable chefs thanks to major televised cook-offs (Iron Chef America and Top Chef, to name just a couple) and a slew of restaurants in Singapore and Toronto. I sat down with Lee at Luckee, his newly opened dim sum spot in the Soho Metropolitan Hotel, to get his take on Toronto's dining scene and how he keeps his concepts fresh with a traditional bent.

Did you always want to be a chef?

No. When I was a kid I was all about hanging out with the guys. I'd party, drink, work and have fun. I learned on the job in Hong Kong, where I grew up. It was a friend who said "Hey, let's hang out, there's a job in a hotel, you want to come try it out?" I said sure. It was when I walked into the kitchen that I said "Hey, this is me". I like the tools, I like the kinves, all those things. It just came very natural.

What's the most valuable lesson you've learned working as a chef?

Discipline. I'm very old-school. I remember working in the kitchen, where I first started. There are all these older chefs - I'm talking about some of them in their late '60s, still cooking - and I looked at them like my father or grandfather. They'd say "Sure, you go party. But tomorrow you come in on time, and if you're late, you stay later and we'll give you more work." They have that kind of kung-fu master mentality. You pay your dues, that's the bottom line. I think discipline has helped me over and over again when perfecting something and doing it right.

How do you keep pushing yourself creatively?

People, the next generation, my sons and also my wife (she's very creative), curiosity, travelling, culture - those are the things that really make me excited. To learn something new - for example, I was in China and I saw a chef take a chili, cut both ends and start rubbing it so that all the seeds fall out, I said "Oh my god, I'm like a student again, I've never seen that kind of technique before." It makes me think of different ways I can use that chili; stuffing it, frying it, cutting it ... all different ways of creating.

How do you think restaurant culture in Toronto has changed throughout your career?

Huge. I think young chefs are really driven and there are more immigrants from different cultures, and people are more accepting of different flavours from cultures, and even trying authentic flavours. So I think Torontonians are now very open-minded.

Susur LeeHow does Toronto's dining scene compare to other international cities?

I think Toronto and Canada is very different from the U.S. and Asia. Toronto is very specific - you have something very traditional next to something very new, and then there's a middle ground between the the two. It's because the audience is very open-minded and it makes our city very special.

What's the most rewarding thing for you to cook these days?

I've created new dishes here for Luckee. But there's one dish, the Shanghaiese ham, that's very traditional, but with a spin, only even the spin I put on it is very traditional too - it's a combination of old and old. I'm excited about this dish because you help yourself (to condiments), make it your own by adding a little of this and a little of that. There's a choice and freedom in this food - it's not just the food in front of you that you're getting, and it lets people engage and eat with their hands. I think it's very graceful but very modern at the same time.

What is an average day like for you?

I get up early, I'm not a late person. I make lists before I go to bed. I'm not a computer guy, so I write everything down and plan my day: dealing with different restaurants, chefs, managers and helping them to create and deliver. Then there's business, press and engaging with the staff, letting them know I'm still running the show. My days are quite packed. I need a good foundation so breakfast is very important to me, and so is fitting in an hour and a half for yoga.

What are some of your current favourite places to eat in Toronto?

I always come back to what I grew up with, Chinese is my comfort food. I go to King's
Noodle
a lot. I've been eating here at Luckee a lot lately ... My wife is also a good cook, she saves me food.

What's next for you as a chef, restaurateur or TV personality?

Restaurateur and chef is the No. 1 thing because it doesn't matter if you're on TV - if your food is not good then you're not a chef. The bottom line is, if you run a restaurant, the food has got to be good. I'm very hands-on, I still cook with my chefs and I create recipes. I have very good people to run the daily restaurant so I'm always really focused on the kitchen.

I've noticed some paper in the windows at Lee on King West, what's happening there?

I'm always upgrading. I always want to create something different. My wife is doing the interior again and we'll be opening in a month's time ... I'm not telling what's inside, check back in month.

Susur LeeRAPID FIRE QUESTIONS

Most underrated ingredient? Celery

Best culinary tool? A good sharp knife

A chef that inspires you? Andrew Tijoe. Not a chef, but my partner in Singapore - he educated me about the history of Chinese food.

What's one dish you can't live without? I could do without the cheque. :)

What chef would you most like to collaborate with? Jean Georges

For more chef profiles, visit our Toronto Chefs Pinterest board.

Photos by Jesse Milns.

Discussion

21 Comments

nathan / April 16, 2014 at 11:04 am
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so things didn't work out him in new york, so he's crawling back to toronto?

sure buddy. sure.

#sellout
realtalk / April 16, 2014 at 11:13 am
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i remember when he paid 200-300 a week for 16 hour days just for the privailage of working for him. and he doesn't even teach you his food, he changes the recipes and writes some in english and some in chinese. great food but his business practices are what gives this industry a black eye.
Anthony replying to a comment from nathan / April 16, 2014 at 11:46 am
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He had enough balls to go for it. What have you done with your life Nathan you pathetic twerp?
Post city / April 16, 2014 at 11:57 am
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Even thou it's susar lee, what he charges in his restaurants is still outrageous!
Monneesha / April 16, 2014 at 11:57 am
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Yeah some of these comments encapsulate the worst part of the Canadian tall poppy syndrome.
wow replying to a comment from nathan / April 16, 2014 at 12:01 pm
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now we're shaming people for looking beyond Toronto? you're the worst.
Ani / April 16, 2014 at 12:49 pm
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I love how much praises his wife. What a sweety pie *_*
Justin / April 16, 2014 at 02:22 pm
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Never heard of him
carl replying to a comment from realtalk / April 16, 2014 at 02:38 pm
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Which part of "Paying your due" didn't you understand? You walk in a job and expect people to teach you everything on the spot so you can leave and open your own place?! In asian culture, you need to start from the bottom up. Learn every single small things before the "master" teach you the real thing. Look at the Japanese, a young graduate from culinary school must learn to make rice for over 5 years before the sushi master teach them how to make sushi. Same for hairdressers, they have to wash hairs for years before getting to cut hair. That is what you call patience and discipline, which what is lacking in the Western culture. Make sure you deserve to be taught before complaining.
sam replying to a comment from Justin / April 16, 2014 at 02:39 pm
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You must be eating McDonald all your life
GRBY / April 16, 2014 at 04:05 pm
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Best Chef in the City. Lee is creative and his food is always incredible. Haters gon' hate.
matts / April 16, 2014 at 04:54 pm
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Feels like I am reading a Toronto Life profile from 2002
aDawg / April 16, 2014 at 06:56 pm
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Susur's a pretentious asshole. I had the displeasure of meeting him once. Made me feel insignificant in the brief 5 minute conversation I had with him. You won't see me spending money in any of his overpriced establishments again. Seriously, Susur, if you're reading this: FUCK YOU.
Annakarenina / April 16, 2014 at 07:17 pm
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Susur put the toronto dining scene on the map. Gimme a fucking break.
ADawg thinks he's owed something / April 16, 2014 at 08:05 pm
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I've served Susur when I used to work as a barrista. He was always complimentary and sweet when I made him a good coffee, days it was off he let me know without being a jerk, it helped as most people didn't let me know if something wasn't quite up to my standard. There was never any bullshit or rank, just honest feedback. Just someone who likes good coffee and is willing to talk about it.

That said, I did not like the atmosphere eating at his Toronto restaurants, not my thing (the food was solid, just hate the King West yuppie vibe). But working and talking with him about the job was always great, even when I fucked up.

If you are going to critique give a frame for the interaction.
AG0407 / April 16, 2014 at 09:01 pm
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While I thought the food at Susur was great, the portion sizes left something to be desired (like a burger after my meal). I also once ate a rotten oyster at Lee and never went back because of it. What a complete fail on the chef's part! I thought both restaurants were ridiculously overpriced.
jeff / April 17, 2014 at 07:50 am
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"What's one dish you can't live without? I could do without the cheque. :)"

Huh? Did I misunderstand this or did he misunderstand the question? Or just a bad attempt at a joke?
DS / April 17, 2014 at 11:11 am
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Hey cheffy Susur, you're not supposed to cut veg on a red board.
aDawg replying to a comment from DS / April 17, 2014 at 05:21 pm
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Ha! I didn't even notice! Right you are!

Oh, and to those who directed their comments at me - I'm only aDawg. I am not going under multiple names. And I don't have to put my criticism of Susur into context or "a frame for the interaction." That was my experience, and I chose to express simply how it made me feel. I don't have to do anything to appease any of you. In my humble opinion, based on my interaction with Susur, and what I've heard from others who have known/worked with the man, he's a pretentious dick who's ego is completely out of control. My conversation with him was in a social setting (a bar) and I was introduced to him through a mutual friend. I had a brief conversation with him during which I expressed my excitement about something that I was soon to experience. He looked at me, rolled his eyes, as if to say "been there, done that", scoffed, and turned his back on me. Prior to our conversation, I had nothing but respect for the man - I had eaten at his restaurants on several occasions, had purchased his cookbooks, and was excited to meet him. After meeting him, my opinion of him changed, and I swore to never again give him a single penny of mine. And I haven't. So, allow me to repeat myself: Susur, if you're reading this: FUCK YOU.
georgieporrigie / April 18, 2014 at 10:09 am
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you wouldn't say any of that to him in person, so its not valid. your lame and weak.
wish / May 29, 2014 at 08:39 am
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If he really wants people to try his food, he should make his restaurants more economically accessible.

I want to see Sursur Lee DO IT CHEAP!!!!!!! AND GOOD!!!!! Then I'll be interested.

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