You’ve probably seen Susur Lee on TV, on a magazine cover or walking through the market in Toronto. Known for his fusion food, six restaurants (five in Toronto and one in Singapore) and his role as a Chopped Canada judge (which returns to Food Network this Sunday), Lee is internationally recognized.
We recently met at his namesake restaurant, Lee, to chat about the upcoming fourth season of the show, his growth in the restaurant business and the story behind his iconic Singapore Slaw.
VIOLET MACLEOD: Tell us about your first restaurant, which was in Toronto.
SUSUR LEE: My first restaurant was a very small place. My family lived upstairs, and the restaurant was downstairs. I would buy everything the day of and make the food, present the menu [and then] take the money. The next day, I would do the same thing over and over again—for 10 years.
It wasn’t really about making money—it was just about myself. I wanted to be free to cook the things I wanted to cook and make my own decisions. I enjoyed it tremendously, and it was one of the best periods to learn about myself.
At that time, what kind of food were you cooking?
At first, I didn’t know [my food] was fusion—the [food] writers wrote that. I was just cooking what I learned during my apprenticeship [in Hong Kong].
What happened next?
I decided after 10 years that I was burnt out. I felt that I needed to learn more. So, I was still young, in my late 30s, and I decided to shut the [restaurant’s] doors. [My family and I] put everything in a hockey bag and went to Asia. I got a job working as a consultant in Singapore for someone who had 26 Chinese restaurants. [This gave me] the chance to [find] myself, re-educate and learn the history of Chinese food. It was a great experience.
Did you ever think about leaving the restaurant industry and trying something new?
Never. What am I going to do? I don’t have other skills. I don’t even read very well. My skills [relate to] kitchen, restaurants, people, culture, food and adapting as a migrant.
How did you first get interested in food and cooking?
Well, my mother’s a terrible cook.
Does she get upset when she hears you say that?
Well, you know, she did one time. I said she was a terrible cook in an article in Hong Kong, and one of my relatives read it and told my mom. She was pissed. (laughs)
So, if your mom wasn’t a good cook, how did you get interested in cooking?
Where I used to live, there was street food right outside my door. You could smell the food, it was so good. I said, “How come my mom’s food doesn’t smell like this?” (laughs)
So, I started to save my change, and I would go to the market and buy all of this street food, and I loved it. It was a little treasure.
What can you tell us about the upcoming season of Chopped Canada?
This season is going to be very exciting. All of the judges are very good this year, everyone has great things to say and there are great challenges.
It’s going to be really diverse, with people from lots of different professions competing. It will open people’s mind about the contestants’ lives—it’s not just about food. It’s like reading a good Confucius book. It’s learning about the gracefulness of food and people.
How did you get involved with Chopped Canada?
They asked me, and I said, “Yes, I’d love to. I love the show.”
Let’s quickly talk about fashion. How would you describe your sense of style?
I love European-cut clothing and European fusion with Asian. Clothes don’t have to be the most extravagant. As long as you have good posture and you feel good, it shows through your style—you’ve got to be confident.
My best style advisor is my wife. She is amazing! The other day, I was ready to go out and she said, “You look like your outfit’s screaming at me!” I changed right away.
Before we wrap-up: one of your most popular dishes is the Singapore Slaw. What’s the story behind that dish?
Well, as you know, I lived in Singapore. During my first Chinese New Year there, I went to a restaurant with my family, and everyone was standing up tossing this salad. They were yelling and screaming, very vibrant and very happy. I wondered what it was, and then I learned in the restaurants I was consulting for about lo hei, which is a Chinese New Year tossed salad. It’s symbolic of a better year.
I looked at the ingredients and I added this and that, took away that and put that in. By the time I came back to North America, I had this salad that I had modified completely, and I made it available all year round.
Why did you make the recipe available online?
Sharing ideas is great. Go ahead and copy it, that’ll make me even better. No matter how you copy it, it won’t be the same as mine.
So, if I have every ingredient and follow every step, I still won’t have the Susur Lee Singapore Slaw at home?
(laughs) It might not be exactly the same!