By David Eng
From a humble start in Hong Kong, critically lauded chef Susur Lee has achieved an impressive culinary career, applying bold experimentation to traditional cooking.
A legend in local Toronto food circles, Susur Lee is also renowned in the international food scene. He is hailed as a culinary genius and one of the pioneers of the “Asian Fusion” movement. Many remember him battling Iron Chef America’s Bobby Flay to a hard-fought tie; Lee might have won had prized ingredients not been confiscated at the border. His restaurants regularly make critics’ top-ranked lists, including in Restaurant UK Magazine and Saveur Magazine. Food & Wine Magazine named him one of the “Ten Chefs of the Millennium.” Yet for a man of his reputation and stature, he can be remarkably unassuming and easygoing.
Lee is strikingly handsome, with his distinctive long hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. Tall and lean, he looks much younger than his 52 years. He also appears very fit—he’s known to be an avid tennis enthusiast, often playing against his sons. He exudes the confidence of a virtuoso at his chosen instrument. It’s astounding to realize that Lee is essentially self-taught: his rags-to-riches story began in Hong Kong, where he was born the youngest of six children in a poor neighbourhood. As a young teenager in the early 1970s, his brother found him a job in a kitchen. “We were not educated. So my sisters and I, everybody was working. During that time in Hong Kong, everybody had to work to survive. My brother was working as a server and he was the first one to say, ‘Oh, come. I’ve got a job for you.’ So that’s how I started.” He paid his dues working long, hard hours cleaning dishes and woks. The grind often took its toll on him. “I had to take a boat from Hong Kong to Kowloon, which would take ten minutes. Sometimes I actually fell asleep and the boat went there and came back and so I never got there. And when I woke up, I’d go …. Shit! The boat still hasn’t moved. Those moments I’ll always remember.” Lee adds, “In the 70s in China, craftsmanship was very, very, very good. There were no computers, nothing. Everything was hand-crafted and skill was very important. It was a natural thing for people to work with their hands …. for example, making Chee Cheung Fun in the streets, or sharpening a knife on a cycling wheel. It’s not like you can just go to school and get a degree and then you become very good. You have to go through the experience. I’ve never been a chef that went to school. I was a hands-on chef.”
However, Lee’s first attempts at cooking on his own weren’t always successful. A friend of his worked at a Jewish restaurant and showed him how to make latkes. “I went home the same day and said, Oh, I can make this … I’m going to make something for my sister. But the difference in making that latke, you have to use a frying pan that’s a little bit thicker, not like a wok. But I didn’t think about it because I had no experience. I burned it with the wok, and smoked up the whole house. It freaked out my mom. And since then, that was one of the things that stuck in my mind—the right pan for the right product.” From 1974 to 1980, Lee worked at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, slowly progressing up the ranks. It was at the hotel where Lee was first exposed to Western food and cultures. Lee recalls the promotions that were often held for various countries, “I could experience the culture from different countries—from Italy, France, Hungary …. all these places have different food. That was one of my greatest memories. I think that was really eye-opening—then I was curious to start travelling around the world.” That opportunity would present itself when he met his future wife at the hotel, an English teacher from Canada named Marilou Covey. Lee kept the relationship secret for a time because he didn’t think his parents would approve of the fact that she was both Caucasian and ten years older than him. When she decided to return to Canada for a PhD, he agreed to come with her, but they first took the opportunity to travel.