Susur Lee has come a long way from his humble beginnings in Hong Kong. The critically-acclaimed king of Asian-fusion, who combines traditional Chinese dishes with classic French techniques, has gone on to become a Top Chef Masters sensation and owner of restaurants all over the world. Next month, he will join Big Night Entertainment Group’s Executive Chef Kevin Long in the Empire kitchen for one night.
On Wednesday, May 1, Lee will co-host Empire’s second visiting celebrity chef series (the first featured BaoHaus owner and Executive Chef Eddie Huang). The $100 multi-course dinner will present guests with the opportunity to experience Lee and Long’s collaborative cuisine. The evening will include special creations from the duo, such as Long’s Pi Dan Tofu on Spoons and Lee’s Roasted Scallop Thailandaise, as well as a beverage pairing to complement the courses. Also featured during the meal will be a Cantonese Marinated Squab Breast.
We recently caught up with Lee, who got his start as a 16-year-old apprentice at Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel, to find out when he first became interested in cooking and what it was like to appear on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters.
“I grew up in Hong Kong and at the age of 15 I did not do well in school, so my brother told me I was going to come live with him,” he said. “I worked in a bar and didn’t like it so I changed to the kitchen. I liked the energy, culture, sound, smell and lifestyle as well as the teamwork and sense of community. That’s how I fell in love with cooking, but I didn’t fall in love with food until I was in my 20s. I traveled the world and learned about culture and tasting different foods. Being a chef to me is about being able to experience more and being open minded.”
Where does his inspiration come from when creating new dishes? “When I worked for chefs in Hong Kong, I didn’t pay attention to inspiration,” Lee said. “Mine comes from discipline. You have to have discipline when producing consistency, which is a very hard thing to do. Repetition comes from skills and details. For example, different cuts provide different feelings in the mouth. There is a reason why we cut a fish a certain way. I paid a lot of attention to those little things.”
Having a keen eye for small details has garnered him much success. His restaurants in Toronto include Lotus, Susur, Lee and Bent Restaurant, which he recently opened with his two sons in September of 2012. He also has restaurants in Singapore and Washington D.C., and has held the coveted title of Executive Chef at New York City’s Shang in the Thompson LES hotel.
“My mother wasn’t a great cook so my happiest moment as a child was when my father came home after he got paid and brought home extra food,” he added. “That gave me one of my best memories as a child, especially where I lived. You could open the window and smell food. It was a very working class neighborhood and I learned what a great aroma is and how that goes along with taste and texture. That gave me a lot of memory and inspiration discovering things with different textures and colors. Traveling also inspires me to come up with new dishes. I am continuously recreating new dishes.”
What was it like competing on Top Chef Masters? “When I was on Top Chef Masters, I really loved the experience because I learned a lot about myself, food, techniques and being a chef,” he said. “It was like rediscovering myself. When I create a dish, I think about things I have learned, places I have been and learned to improvise along the way. The menu is my interpretation of different techniques of cooking and culture.”