Toronto Through the Eyes of Susur Lee

My interview with Susur Lee is scheduled for 4:00pm. I breeze through the door of his eponymous restaurant on King West just a tad before schedule, expecting a nice, quiet sit-down with the Toronto-based, world renowned chef.

I expected wrong.

Sure, at any other restaurant, a quiet hour with the big kahuna two hours before service may have been possible. But Susur is hardly any other restaurant.

Opened in 2000, Lee's second restaurant in Toronto--the celebrated Lotus closed its doors in 1997--has been getting rave reviews from the culinary cognoscenti since day one. The distinguished temple of gastronomy offers five- and seven-course tasting menus that change daily, a concept simple in theory, but remarkably difficult in execution. Each night's offerings are crafted based on Lee's mood and purchases at the local markets that day. As such, menus are not known until 5:00pm the day it is served.

Maybe a 4:00pm interview wasn't such a great idea.

Over the course of an hour-long chat, we are interrupted five times by three different members of staff. From clarification on the traditional Chinese technique being used to prepare that night's pork to whether a sans serif font would do for the new door lettering, it quickly became apparent that nothing happens at Lee's namesake restaurant--no matter how big or small--without the blessing of its master and commander. As his staff scurries about, however, Lee is reclined and relaxed, his trademark long locks pulled back in a taut ponytail. While the man possesses an easygoing, affable charm, there is, at the same time, a decidedly haute monde air about him. Indeed, Lee, who came from a poor Hong Kong family, has made the most of his 20-plus years in Toronto. The chef, one of the top 10 in the world, as named by Food & Wine, is a true Cinderella story.

A young Lee waved goodbye to his native land in 1980 with adventure on his mind. After one and a half years of traveling (and eating) through Asia, the Middle East and Europe, he was lured to Toronto by a lady love--"It was sex at first but, after two years, I realized I really did like her". The land of hockey, beavers and poutine, however, proved to be largely different from expectations.

"When I heard 'Canada', I thought, 'Where is Canada?' I looked on the map and saw North America and thought 'Oh, I'm going to America!'" he laughs today. "Growing up in Hong Kong, I watched all the American shows. [I saw] Coca-Cola signs and all that. So when I landed here, I thought, 'Where are the Coca-Cola signs? I don't see a thing.' All I saw was the CN Tower going blink blink blink at night."

Lee began working three kitchen jobs to put his first wife through graduate school. And, in spite of the initial discomfort that is only natural in a foreign land, the budding chef soon fell under Toronto's spell. A passionate vagabond and culture hawk at heart, Lee attributes his warm embrace of the city to its vibrant multiculturalism.

"Working in kitchens, I realized that [Toronto] is the like world. I have Greek people, I have Koreans, Chinese, Italians all working in the same kitchen. It was no different from traveling, with all these people," he recalls, his voice softened by nostalgia, his eyes brimming with the excitement of yesteryear. "And then I started to establish relationships with these people, talking about their food, their countries, their loves, their cultures, their religion, and it was all very fascinating. And then I started to understand what 'Canada' involved and what it is [to be] 'Canadian', this way of living."

Slowly, but surely, Lee worked his way up the ranks of the local culinary circuit, including terms at Le Trou Normand, Peter Pan and La Bastille. In 1987, he opened the highly successful Lotus. After a solid 10-year run, he relocated to Singapore so that he could, as a consulting chef, spend more time with his family. (Toronto foodies wept.)

In 2000, Lee returned to Toronto and opened Susur. (Toronto foodies rejoiced.) Rave reviews began pouring in immediately and, ere long, the restaurant was appearing on international Top 50 lists. Never one to sit happily on his laurels, the entrepreneur opened Lee in 2004. "At Lee, the cuisine is not shy. It is high-texture, high-acidity and high-spice," he explains. "It's all high energy and very accessible."

These days, Lee keeps busy with his two King West boites while finding time to appear on Iron Chef America, cater private parties--a 5,000-person tribute party for Michael Snow, anyone?--and travel to Asia regularly. For him, returning to his home continent is both therapeutic and inspirational.

"Asia re-energizes me. The Chinese have sayings, proverbs, calligraphy, certain poems, certain kinds of Chinese art, the culture, the Communist way of thinking, the Chinese way of doing business, the food. When I go to China, I always rediscover somehow that intelligence, that culture, inspires me in what I do now," he says.

Although Asia is his muse--one of the night's meat dishes, for example, incorporates an ancient Chinese recipe--Toronto is his canvas. The chef is grateful for Torontonians' open-mindedness towards new food experiences, an attitude he attributes to the melting pot reality the city's population. Sounds like a win-win situation for all involved: Lee serves up his Asian fusion fare and epicureans flock, tongues a-wagging, to his downtown digs. His creations have been called "sexy", "glorious", "edible poetry" even. From Gourmet to Zagat, Art Culinaire to Saveur, anybody who knows their chanterelle from their enoki have tooted his horn. So what's next for the celebrity chef? Lee is entertaining the idea of another restaurant.

"The feeling of doing something else, something new, is very important to me," he explains. "Without that drive to recreate and continue, I wouldn't be interested. My life would be very boring. I don't want to go there. I want to continue. So if you ask me, 'Are you doing something else?', absolutely. I'm always thinking of doing something else."


Susur Lee on Toronto

My favourite place...

...for breakfast: I'm really not a breakfast person. My hours make it hard to eat breakfast--when I wake up at 9 or 10 o'clock, I usually start thinking about what I have to do that day. In the morning, I make my juice, drink my Spirulina--you should try it, it's good stuff--and that's it. Most of the time, I just have lunch. I like having a very big lunch.

...for lunch: I don't have one favourite place for lunch. It depends on the day, how much time I have and how I feel, what I feel. I like going to Chinese restaurants, of course. And I like going to Indian restaurants, to Italian restaurants, to Japanese restaurants. But I don't have a favourite because food, for me, is about how I feel that [particular] day. Cooking is like that, too, it's the same thing. You have to think about how you feel that day. You have to think of what is coming in fresh that day, and that's always different. So I don't have a schedule of '"Oh, I go there five times a week". Not at all. I go to Toshi (565 King W, 416.260.8588) just down the street. I like Taste of China (338 Spadina, 416.348.8828). King's Noodle (296 Spadina, 416.598.1817) - I go there a lot. I go to Terroni (various locations) for pizza, and I go to Noah's Natural Foods (various locations), the health food store, for vegetarian food. At the back, they have a little counter and [on] days when I feel really good, I go there and have stuff like mashed up squash--just something real simple, not even have salt in there. I like the simplicity of taste. Just straight up vegetarian. Boiled organic vegetables, kale with a little soy vinaigrette--I love that. I love really simple food. It feels good. There's that [cleansing aspect], there's that lightness after you eat it. And you feel energetic afterwards. I always make sure I eat very balanced. I'm not obsessive about eating one thing, so Noah's is great.

...for drinks: After work, I just shut down from socializing with people. I'll go with my staff to the Wheat Sheaf (667 King W, 416.504.9912) for a drink. But socializing in bars, I'm not really interested.

...for dancing: The older I get, [I find I] just don't go to loud clubs anymore. When friends come to visit and say "let's go out for a drink", I'll say "sure, let's go". But I don't really go out a lot.

...to unwind: After work, I like to have some time to myself. Because, the thing is, my work is social. I'm a very private person, and when people get too close, I'll just say, "Stop, I don't want to get too close to you." I don't want you to know me too much. I'm like that. So, after work, I like to go to Chinatown and order some food, nothing fancy. I go to Taste of China, or maybe King's Noodle or Swatow (309 Spadina, 416.977.0601)...one of those. And I'll just sit quietly and eat. Sometimes I will talk to the people there but, many times, I just like to sit quietly and reflect. Chinese food is comfort food for me, so I really enjoy that. And then I drive home and it's all just very quiet, very relaxing.

...to get inspired: To find inspiration for my profession, I travel. When I was a kid, I never really studied. I started working when I was 14. And I never really studied in terms of books and culture. So traveling is my reeducation for myself, my inspiration of what I did not know. Going to China, living in Asia, was a very big finding and defining [experience] for myself. What am I coming from? What is it all about? Based on the culture, the food, the history. So that's why my restaurant, the type of cooking that I do, has a lot of Asian background. Anything that is very old, for me, is very new. So, yeah, for inspiration, I usually find it outside the city.

Everyone should know about: I don't know. Usually when something is good, I'll tell people but I can't think of any one particular thing right now. I don't always go to the best places. I'm not like that. It's all about place and time. I just had pizza at Amato (various locations). I got two slices of vegan - it was great.

Biggest pet peeve about Toronto: The weather.

An ideal day in Toronto: If I slept for eight hours, that is great already. That would be a good day. Let's see...I'd get up. Then I'd want to know that at the restaurant, everybody in the kitchen and at the front of house are immersed [in their work] and everything is working out. Nothing like machines or computers breaking down. I know the business is going, everyone is doing their job, and that the night is [going to be] busy, so nobody has time to think about anything expecting focusing on work. So then I would have my juice, my Spirulina. Then I would go and do some exercise. I would come back, have a hot shower, go into my hot tub down in the basement. Then I would look at my watch and say, "I think I know what they're doing right now" and give the restaurant a call. And when I call, they say, "No problem. Everything's all good." Ding, put my phone down. Then I'd call my wife, see where she is. Maybe we would plan a lunch together somewhere. Then, after lunch, we'd come home, make love, then pick up Jet, my younger son. Then spend the night with the two older boys together. Sometimes, they say, "Dad, you want to go eat?" or "Dad, you want to go see a movie?" and we'd do that. And that would be a perfect day for me. Knowing the restaurant is taken care of and that I have time for my family. That I can actually spend time and hang out with them.

Finish the sentence "Toronto is...": a place where you have so much freedom to explore new ideas. And it is also very accepting of new ideas. People are open-minded and quite peaceful about it; but, at the same time, are very private about it. So, for me, I like that part. Nothing is ever thrown in your face, like "you should, you should, you should." You still have a lot of privacy about what you do. And also Canadians are not so demonstrative. So it's quite [laidback]. Toronto is like a little jewel for me, coming from another culture, and living in other places, traveling a lot. Coming back, it feels comfortable. My family is okay. My business is busy. I have people that support what I do and are open-minded. Toronto has all these international things you can do, but you don't have to hustle too much.

Susur is located at 601 King West and is open for dinner Monday through Saturday, from 6:00 to 10:00pm. Their website features more information, including sample menus and event booking details. Reservations can be made via the website or by calling 416.603.2205.

Lee is located at 603 King West and is open for lunch (from 12:00 to 2:30pm) and dinner (from 6:00 to 10:30pm) Monday through Friday. It is also open for dinner from 6:00 to 11:00pm on Saturdays. For more information, see their website or call 416.504.7867.

A two-volume book about the chef, Susur: A Culinary Life, was published in October 2005. It can be purchased on Amazon. A special limited edition can also be purchased by calling 416.603.2205.

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