Singapore's Asia Cuisine magazine dubs him "a culinary philosopher, a modern Plato with a ponytail." Food And Wine magazine hails him as one of the "10 hottest chefs alive," right up there with New York City's Jean-Paul Vongerichten and London's Marco Pierre White. But Susur Lee is a modest man."People say to me, "Susur, look at all the wonderful write-ups. You're a star!'" remarks the nonchalant Lee. "But I'm not interested in celebrity. My kitchen is all I need. I'm happy to be the guy out back covered in grease."
The kitchen in question, of course, is Susur's, and it's hardly a greasy spoon. The new restaurant -- a completely transformed space that formerly housed local landmark Ciccone's -- follows Lotus, Lee's illustrious eatery that finally brought Toronto to the attention of the international foodie set, who used the F-word: fusion.
"That's just a commercial term that writers use to describe what I'm doing," reasons the level-headed Lee. "The way I cook is really quite traditional. I would never put peaches in tomato sauce. That's crazy."
Rampant rumour After a decade in business, Lotus had run its course by the time it closed three years ago. The rampant rumour that Lee was to open a boite in New York City with Robert De Niro proved false.
"That story has been around for years," Lee laughs. "The restaurant scene here is very small, and everybody likes to think they know what's going on."
Instead, Lee, with his wife and young children, headed to Singapore to take part in the World Gourmet Summit of 1997. There, he hooked up with a restaurant group and oversaw 16 of their venues, including Club Chinoise, a chic supperclub, as well as House of Mao and the Red Book, two buffet-bistros decked out in revolutionary Communist kitsch.
"It was a chance for my family to learn about Asia, to experience the culture that I was brought up in," explains Lee. "And I got to work with cooks who had been making the same dishes for 40 or 50 years. I learned a lot about technique, especially sauces."
But, after a few visits back to Toronto, Lee concluded that the city had changed. "Toronto has become more outward-looking, more international-thinking. It doesn't just think about itself all the time."
Perfect intro Lee recalls the first time he discovered the city he's learned to call home. "When I first came to Toronto 20 years ago, I didn't really understand what was going on," remembers the chef. "But Queen Street was the perfect introduction to underground North American society. I loved it -- everybody was an artist!"
Lee made his first big splash at Peter Pan in the early 80s. In fact, his Salade Chinoise -- cool Cantonese noodles with shrimp and stir-fried vegetables in a lime-ginger-soya dressing -- is still served there.
"We recognized his creativity immediately," reminisces Peter Pan's Mary Jackman, who decided along with partner Larry Guest to give Lee free rein in the kitchen. "Susur really wanted to do his own thing, so we let him. Boy, were we lucky!"
Not only was there excitement on the menu, but Lee and the other downtown young turks -- Jamie Kennedy, Michael Statlander, Greg Couillard, and Andrew Milne Allen -- were shaking the staid foundations of Hogtown's dreary dining rooms. Today, they're superstars.
"It was the high society of chefs in those days," says Jackman. "They were all inspiring and aspiring cooks who connected socially. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to Toronto's food scene."
Lucky us! But there's another person Toronto should thank: Susur Lee's mother.
"If anything, she was an inspiration in reverse," reflects Lee. "My mother's cooking was awful -- even my father hated it!"