Praised as one of the “Ten Chefs of the Millennium” in 2000 by Food & Wine magazine, Susur Lee’s star has continued to rise. Now a celebrity chef thanks to appearances on Iron Chef America, Top Chef Masters, and Chopped Canada, he is also the creator of a handful of restaurants—Lee, Fring’s, Luckee, TungLok Heen, and Bent—that have earned him a global reputation for culinary excellence.
In honor of Father’s Day, we recently had the opportunity to catch up with Mr. Lee to talk family, fine dining, and his sons (Levi, Kai, and Jet) as they follow in his footsteps.
You have been considered a Toronto west end institution since you planted your roots here with Lotus in the 1990s. How do you credit your humble beginnings?
I moved here from Hong Kong as a young man…I didn’t have anything when I came here. I worked day and night just to get by and learn everything I could. I just wanted to make great, exciting, and delicious food. I never intended to be an “institution”—that’s nice of you to say. But being humble and staying grounded is important to me; it’s keeps my hunger to learn alive.
You were also one of the first chefs in Toronto to offer a tasting menu, a trend that grew exponentially in the industry. What thoughts went into how you designed this daily experiment?
Going to the food markets of Toronto was my inspiration. With so much multiculturalism around me, I was able to experiment and create my signature style of fusion and east-meets-west. I started designing new menus every day.
How did the conception of BENT come about? Does the name bear any meaning?
Family is important to me. Bent is my wife’s family name. She’s very involved in all of our restaurants. She and her business partner design all of the spaces. BENT is about bringing my family together and continuing to grow.
How do you go about creating a new dish? Do ideas come to you as revelations, or is it a long process of trial and error?
Cooking is what I love. Creating for me comes from music, heart, travelling, learning… it’s hard to put in words. Creating is just part of me.
One of your restaurants is in Singapore and the rest are in Toronto. How do you ensure that your vision is maintained while you’re working elsewhere?
I have great teams working with me. I have been with my team in Singapore for over 20 years. We have an understanding of each other’s visions. They share my passion for the culture and food of Asia. When you love what you do, it’s easy.
We understand that Drake, a friend of your sons, is a big fan (maybe more?) of Fring’s. What’s his favorite thing on the menu?
He loves the Susur Burger at Fring’s.
Did you hope that your sons would follow in your footsteps?
It was very organic…Nothing felt forced. They grew up in restaurants so it makes sense. They’re very good at what they do.
Working with family can be tricky. How have you and your sons learned to navigate the restaurant business together? What have you learned from each other along the way?
It’s about time and place. It doesn’t matter when doing business with family…Family comes first.
What did you cook for your sons when they were growing up?
Daddy’s Best Chicken was something all of them could agree on. With 3 boys and 3 different palettes, it wasn’t always easy.
Do you cook for yourself at home, or is that something you associate with work – i.e., is it something you like to leave behind at the end of the workday?
Cooking is my passion. Cooking never feels like work…I associate food with nurturing myself, relaxing, and mental well being.
How has your experience as a television personality impacted you as a chef?
If anything, it’s broadened my palette and my business. It gives me the opportunity to reach out to the world of business while still doing what I love, meeting new people & tasting new things.
Does it change the way you approach food? (For instance, wanting something to look more aesthetically pleasing for the sake of the camera, trying to strike a balance between taste and appearance, etc.)
I’ve always considered visuals when plating my food… people eat with their eyes first. You want them to be excited about what’s in front of them.
We understand that art and design are very important to you. What are the things you like to focus on in the design of your own restaurants?
For me, my guests’ comfort is paramount. The environment we strive for is dynamic and visually stimulating. I always work with my wife Brenda Bent and her partner Karen Gable [Bent Gable Design]. I pretty much give them free range to do what they like and so far I’ve LOVED everything they do.
What’s your guilty pleasure/favorite comfort food?
Dried shrimp chips…my wife hates that I love them, but they really bring me back to my childhood in Hong Kong.
You joined forces with Bobby Flay a little while ago for a six-course tasting at Fring’s, which was incredibly well received. Any plans to welcome other celebrity chefs into your kitchen in the future?
My sons have some really exciting plans, but nothing we can announce yet!