Celebrity fusion chef Susur Lee has come a long way since his apprenticeship mixing milk tea in cha chaan tengs. Named one of the “Top 10 Chefs of the Millennium” in 2000, Lee is the force behind Toronto restaurants Luckee, Lee, and Bent. He has made appearances on Iron Chef America and was a finalist in Top Chef Masters. Now a judge on the first season of Masterchef Asia, the chef sits down with Evelyn Lok to talk fusion cooking, relationships and chicken feet.
I grew up in Hong Kong, in a family of six. I’m the youngest. My family didn’t cook well and we weren’t well off, so I loved to eat street food.
Back then, street food wasn’t like the junk food we have now. It was gourmet homemade food. There was less fried stuff. More like stewed chicken feet or beef brisket, stuffed peppers, things that you have to go to restaurants nowadays to find.
I never thought of becoming a chef. But if there was a table of toys in front of me, and you put a plate of food in front of me, I’d eat the food first.
As a kid I didn’t like studying. I got held back in school many times. I liked to experience things: touch things, smell things, see things. I had to go experience it before I felt I could understand it.
I was born in the Year of the Dog. Maybe it’s something to do with that. My ears and nose are very sensitive.
My favorite childhood memory was going to the movies at the Apollo Theatre [in Sham Shui Po]. I was tiny and it was crowded, so my brother would sneak me in without paying.
I would always eat their lo sui soyed chicken feet, with mustard and sweet sauce. Everyone would just spit the bones onto the floor. And then you’d suddenly feel little things scurrying about next to your feet…
As a working class family, we tried to save money. My mom would always put the freshly cooked rice on top, and the old overnight rice on the bottom of the cooker. I just had to smell it, and I’d say “I’m not eating this! It’s old rice!” Then my mom would go and buy char siu for me to eat.
One day, I had an argument with my mother. I took some money, took the keys, and left home. I was only wearing a pair of shorts. I stayed at my friend’s house for a few nights.
It was at the Kowloon Walled City, which was very dangerous. But at the time, I felt free. I was a big boy.
After a few days, I called my brother. I lived with him for a while. After some time, he said, “Hey, you need to start paying rent.” He found me a job at a drinks station in [cha chaan teng] Mei Lai Tsuen opposite Yung Kee in Central.
My mother is 91 years old, so in the last few years I’ve really treasured my time with her. Eating with her, spending time with her, understanding her.
[On moving to Canada] I met a girl. We ended up going backpacking across the Middle East and Europe.
We didn’t have a lot of money, so we just pitched a tent on the beach. We lived like vagabonds, but we were eating good food from the markets. It’s how you absorb the local culture. It was an education.
When my kids were born, I wanted to be their sifu, rather than a father figure. It changes all your expectations. It’s a way of educating them. To this day, that’s why they enjoy working with me, and joined my businesses to take care of my restaurants.
I’m very happy working with my three sons. They’re my best friends.
[On creating fusion dishes] A lot of people don’t understand that fusion cooking needs to have traditional foundations in two cultures, merged together to become one.
Just adding red wine to an Asian dish is not fusion.
Restaurants really need someone who’s good with people. You can’t function otherwise.
If you’re always thinking about making money and work, then there’s no meaning.
To this day, what I teach my kids is all about building interpersonal relationships: from morals to doing business, to how to treat your employees, to how you should see other people.
I teach my kids how to eat as well. I always take them around the world, trying new foods. My father also taught me—he’d say things like “mm, this dish is quite sour” and I’d learn those flavors by following his chopsticks.
My son is opening his own restaurant in a few months.
I’m helping him plan his kitchen and menu, but my accomplishment is seeing him come out and do business on his own: his growth, his excitement. I’m going to step back and watch. I feel very content.
Today, everything is fast. Back then, when you made a dish it was from A to Z. You couldn’t be lazy. Now young chefs find the procedures too complicated. They don’t understand that cooking, experience, history—it all takes time.
Slow cooking is the best.
I think the biggest change in Hong Kong is its coffee culture.
When I still lived here, people used to just drink yuen yeungs in cha chaan tengs. Society started to thrive. Now there are coffee shops, espresso bars everywhere. It’s for people to re-energize, because everyone’s busy now. You don’t drink coffee to relax.
I won’t think of retiring. I’m fortunate to be busy. The human brain needs to be creative. I don’t want my mind to be like a vegetable.
People open a restaurant as a business. But for me, you have to do it from the heart.
Need to Know…
Susur Lee is a judge on the first season of Masterchef Asia, which pits 15 Southeast Asian home cooks against each other to find the best amateur chef in Asia.
Catch it Thursdays at 9pm on Lifetime, NowTV Channel 525.