By Jeanne Beker
Portrait Photography by Alvaro Goveia
Grooming by Tricia Langenberg-Kealy
Photography by Robert Holowka
When it comes to rockstar cool in the world of Canadian haute cuisine, few can hold a candle to chef Susur Lee. A highly creative and bold, risk-taking restaurateur on the Toronto scene since the mid 1980s, Susur has long been admired for introducing his innovative brand of Asian/Euro fusion to legions of local foodies who’d never experienced anything like it before. And since his first independent foray into fine dining with the exquisite and legendary Lotus in 1987, Susur has surfed the various waves of culinary trends, catering to the changing zeitgeist with skill, passion and aplomb.
Born in Hong Kong in 1958, Susur attributes his love of fine food — and his determination to learn to prepare it — to his early family life, growing up in a family of six kids, with a mother who was usually too busy working to wow her brood with great meals. “My mom was a terrible cook,” he shares. “I learned that at a young age, when I saved my pennies to spend on street food at the market on my way home from school. Once I tasted that, I said, ‘Wait a second. This is so good! My mom’s food doesn’t taste like this!’” The young Susur started taking notes, delighting in sampling exotic fare like chicken feet. “It was the fast-food of the time,” he reminisces. “But it’s not like fast-food nowadays. It takes time to make it. So I think that triggered me to really pay attention to food. Because every time, when I got home, I said, ‘Wait a second. This doesn’t taste good!’ You see, I came from a very humble family. And my mom used to have to hide the leftover rice from the night before at the bottom of the pot, and cover it up with fresh rice on the top. But I knew it wasn’t all fresh. And when I didn’t think it was good, I’d just stop eating.”
While Susur admits to having been a chubby kid, he earned the nickname of “Picky Wei” for being a very picky eater. His mom didn’t have the luxury of time to master her home cooking, so in order to feed the whole family as easily as possible, she’d just put everything in a pot and boil it. “Actually, that kept us very healthy. We never fried anything. And that was good,” Susur reflects. He claims he absorbed so much as a kid — between watching his mom’s way in the kitchen and her buying everything fresh at the market every day because they didn’t have a big fridge for storage. That helped him understand the value of freshness. He also learned a lot about business from his mom, even though she was uneducated, and worked as a “tea lady,” babysitter and laundress for officers in the British army. Still, she had a kind of savvy that ended up serving Susur well. “My mom always haggled with the fishmonger when I’d go to the market with her. And she’d say, ‘Oh no, no, I’m not paying that!’ So that’s a little bit of business that I learned from her when I was a kid,’” he smiles. Susur’s mother’s work ethic was also instrumental is shaping her son’s attitude toward work, and wanting not to do just a good job, but a great job. “My mom had to wash the officers’ uniforms by hand. It was hard work. It was so hard on her hands; they were always peeling,” he remembers. “When I was young, I didn’t understand how much suffering she went through, how hard she laboured, what she was putting into her job.”
But Susur’s dad also played a big part in feeding his son’s dreams. A well-educated accountant, he’d take his pay cheque at the end of every month and splurge on taking his young son out for dim sum. Fine food became very special for Susur, as it marked special occasions. “That was something you really looked forward to,” he says. And then, of course, he learned quite a lot from his four sisters. “They sort of became my parents because when my mom wasn’t there, they were the ones in charge. And they were good cooks. Each one had her specialty in making something amazing at home,” he says fondly. “And I was always curious to know what went into every dish.”
Despite his growing knowledge about food and cooking, Susur wasn’t academically inclined, admitting to being “terrible” in school. His understanding mother allowed him to drop out and he got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant at the age of 14. A couple of years later, he began apprenticing in the kitchen at Hong Kong’s prestigious Peninsula Hotel. It was there where he met his first wife — a slightly older Canadian woman, Marylou Covey, who inspired him to come to Canada. Except for a trip to Thailand, Susur hadn’t seen any of the world at that point. Arriving in Toronto at the age of 20 opened his mind to glorious possibilities. “I wanted to see other parts of the world because I was not educated with culture. I wanted to know what makes people eat differently, according to religions and cultures. I wanted to know all that.” Susur and Marylou travelled around the world frugally for a year before landing back in Canada. “We travelled throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe before going back to North America. It was all a huge learning experience, like a true education for one full year,” he says.
The couple decided to move back to Hong Kong a couple of years later in 1983, with Marylou going ahead of him. Tragically, she died aboard the Korean Airlines plane she was travelling on: It was shot down by a Soviet fighter jet when it violated Soviet airspace. The grieving Susur decided to remain in Toronto and pick up the pieces of his life. The following year, at Toronto’s Peter Pan Bistro, he met the talented Brenda Bent, a local clothing designer, who he married eight years later. Brenda strongly encouraged Susur’s creativity and, in 1987, he began making huge waves on the Toronto dining scene with Lotus, his first eatery that boasted a chic, intimate atmosphere and an extraordinary tasting menu. (I personally had the pleasure of dining there back in the day, and can only say it felt like a near religious experience.) The care and attention Susur put into every detail and dish was unprecedented. A meal at Lotus was considered the ultimate in luxury and chef Lee, hailed as a “culinary genius,” was catapulted to the top of the chef-as-rockstar heap.
“Cooking for my family is number one. I love cooking for myself because cooking at home is important.”
A decade after opening, Lotus closed its doors. Susur spent the next three years re-energizing in Singapore and acting as a consultant for a restaurant group there. When he returned to Toronto in 2000, he opened his second restaurant, Susur, and his wife Brenda helped with the design renovation. In 2004, inspired to offer a more casual ambience, the entrepreneurial chef opened the popular Lee. Once again, Brenda, now partnered with designer Karen Gable, worked in conjunction with the architect to design the King Street West restaurant’s relaxed glam interior. The highly popular spot caters to legions of devoted fans with an innovative mix of Asian/Euro-fusion dishes. But the star attraction on chef Lee’s menu is his famous Singapore Slaw, comprised of 19 ingredients and presented and tossed at the table like some sort of mini art installation.
While Lee remains the jewel in Susur’s crown these days — he’s opened and closed a healthy handful of interesting eateries over the past couple of decades, including a restaurant named Fring’s, which he co-owned with Drake — Susur’s current roster includes Lee Kitchen at Pearson International Airport and a restaurant in Singapore called TungLok Heen. His two older sons, Levi, 32, and Kai, 30, were involved in the business with him for a while, but eventually decided restaurants weren’t for them. “They were with me for almost five years, and saw how I worked and how complicated the business is and how complicated it can be dealing with people,” says Susur. “And they said to me there were a few things they didn’t like about the business. So I said, ‘Okay, you should quit and do things that make you happy.’ And I’m happy that they quit and are doing their own thing. I support them fully.” Levi and Kai now live in LA and are involved in a YouTube channel. Susur’s thankful to have a great relationship with them. His youngest son Jet, 24, still lives at home, and judging from TikTok, father and son are very cool collaborators.
Susur’s family home, located in Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods neighbourhood, was designed by his wife’s Bent Gable Design company, and has a casual, urban feel. As for the kitchen? “Oh, it’s a very nice kitchen, because my wife designed it,” laughs Susur. “But it’s not like a high-end professional kitchen. I never cook in a complicated way at home. I cook very casual, healthy food. Lots of boiled vegetables or sautés — things that are very healthy and provide great nutrients. I don’t cook at home the way I cook at the restaurant. Just give me a stove and pots and pans and that’s all I need!” When friends come over, Susur doesn’t even have wine glasses for them. “And it’s only a party of four,” he says. “‘Hey, Susur,’ they tell me, ‘You have a great restaurant, but you don’t have damn matching wine glasses!’” he laughs, admitting that he doesn’t spend a lot of time entertaining at home. Does cooking for others still give him the kind of joy as it has in the past? “Cooking for my family is number one. I love cooking for myself because cooking at home is important. I eat very healthy. I eat very well. And in terms of cooking for my friends, well, I do. But you know, I just have a few friends who I hang out with and because I’ve known them for years, we’d get together and cook in their kitchens. I will bring the food and then we just hang out and everybody brings their various dishes. So that’s really the kind of entertaining I love,” he reveals. “ I don’t have too many friends, but they all love food.”
Having always been extremely creative, ambitious and driven, Susur seems to have struck a wonderful balance in his life these days and claims to be in a good space. He adores spending time with his dog, Nyla, a five-year old Husky that his son Levi gave him two years ago. And his love for his family — and his passion for his métier — keep him happy and engaged. But while he loves to work, he stresses that he’s not a workaholic. “I’m excited to come to work because I create new things. That makes me want to come to work. But I don’t like to go behind the stove,” he confesses. “I create the dish, I process it in terms of ingredients and presentation, and tell my staff how to articulate where the dish comes from. I make it, taste it, teach them how to make it and then I leave them to produce it. I don’t sweat behind the stove. I constantly help to organize the kitchen, making sure the staff know all the protocols of how to serve. That is my joy. I call it my duty.”
Of course, since rockstar chefs cannot live on merely running successful restaurants alone in this age of celebrity brand building, the dashing Susur has also been active in the media spotlight over the years, appearing on shows like Iron Chef America and Top Chef: Masters. I asked him how much he enjoyed being out there in the limelight over the years, so emblematic of his brand. “The stardom thing didn’t really get to my head, to be honest,” he tells me. “It’s so nice to go to a coffee shop and be recognized. But day to day, it never really changed me from who I was. I have a great family. I have a great relationship. I have a great staff. Those things are really satisfying. I don’t need more than that. My ego values are different, let’s put it that way.”