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2000s Archive

Straight From the Heart

Originally Published October 2001
Susur Lee didn't set out to become Canada's hottest chef. In fact, as Jocelyn Zuckerman learns, the career of this improvisational artist has been about as calculated as his cooking—which is to say, not at all.

Three of Charlie Trotter's line cooks are hunkered down in a booth along the far wall of Toronto's Susur restaurant. One of them, a heavyset guy in a dark suit, has just taken a bite of his smoked squab, and a look of something like fear has settled in on his ample face. As he slowly chews, his eyes dart from one to the other of his colleagues across the table. "This dish is blowing me away," he says finally. "It's herbaceous, it's spicy, it's sweet. It's crisp. It's soft."

The plate—which in addition to the deboned bird features a swath of beef tongue draped delicately over a tiny sweet-potato and roasted pineapple tart, a small mound of braised red cabbage, and separate pools of miso mustard and foie gras sauces flecked with shards of preserved lemon and habanero chile—is just one of seven dishes that he will be served during the course of the night, each of them as multidimensional and improbable as the next.

The man behind this elaborate parade is no stranger to a dining room overcome with awe. Susur Lee has been making waves in Canada since he opened his first restaurant in 1987. A tiny spot in Toronto's funky Queen Street neighborhood, Lotus was the original showcase for what would become Lee's signature style—a seamless melding of classical European and Chinese techniques and ingredients. "He was a pioneer of fusion," says restaurateur Drew Nieporent.

At Lotus, people booked months in advance for a chance to watch the ponytailed chef in action while sampling such surprisingly cohesive combinations as his rack of lamb with Thai green curry sauce served with an eggplant-onion tart, black and pink peppercorn polenta, orange tomato marmalade, and chile mint chutney. Toronto Life called the restaurant "a shrine of serious, complex, highly original cooking" and even ran "Absolut Susur" ads. There were guest gigs in Israel and Singapore; appearances on the Food Network; and, eventually, invitations to expand in Toronto and relocate to New York.

But after ten years at Lotus, Lee had begun to feel burned-out. He closed the restaurant in 1997 and dropped out of sight until last August, when he resurfaced with Susur. Twice the size of its 40-seat predecessor, Lee's new place has been packed since day one, and Canadian critics are falling over themselves trying to invent new superlatives to describe the intense flavors and unique combinations turning up on his plates night after night.

Who is this guy that's got everyone in such an uproar? And what is it about his food that has chefs from North America's top kitchens hopping on airplanes to spend a single evening in his dining room?

Susur lee might quibble with Nieporent's semantics (he refers to fusion as the F word), but he wouldn't deny that his cooking is all about the disparate cultures that have shaped him. First was Hong Kong, where he was born and lived until the age of 19. Lee's mother, a "tea lady" for the British army who didn't feel much like crafting dinner for six children when she got home at night, cooked bland, boiled food, so his culinary epiphanies tended to take place outside the home. He remembers one afternoon spent in the shadows of a dim sum restaurant. Before disappearing behind his horse-racing paper, his father had told Lee to order whatever he pleased. Three hours later, Lee senior folded his paper to find a table littered with half-eaten dumplings and buns. "That's how I got my nickname," the 42-year-old chef says with a giggle. "Little Piggy. For a Chinese boy, I was kind of round."

Lee moved out of his parents' cramped and unhappy household when he was just 14 and took a job washing woks at a Pekingese restaurant. Two years later he was hired as an apprentice in the classical European kitchens of the city's renowned Peninsula hotel. Having gone from the youngest in the house to the youngest in the kitchen, he admits that he was "kind of insecure" and went out of his way to prove himself on the job. He thrived in the grown-up environment and by 19 had risen to saucier.

That year he met Marilou Covey, a 29-year-old Toronto native who was teaching in Hong Kong. Although Lee didn't introduce her to his parents right away ("Number one, she was 29. Number two, she was Caucasian"), he decided that they'd spend their lives together. Two years later they left Hong Kong to backpack through Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

After nine months on the road, the couple landed in Toronto, where they spent the next five years with their heads down—Covey studying for her Ph.D. and Lee cooking around the clock. "Everything was about making money, surviving." When she was offered a professorship in Hong Kong, the (now-married) couple decided to move back to Lee's hometown. Covey planned to head over to arrive in time for fall classes, and Lee would follow a few weeks later. But on September 1, 1983, the Korean airliner that Covey had boarded that morning veered from its flight path and was shot down by Soviet fighters. "Oh man," Lee says softly. "She was my best friend. She was my only friend."

The dining room at Susur is a study in soothing white. There are cream-colored, mock ostrich-skin chairs and banquettes, and snowy cloths set with bone-colored plates. Pearlescent light glows from behind scrims of pale goatskin, and a lone white orchid droops in each of six arched windows. Everything radiates a Zen-like calm. Everything, that is, but the two boxes on the back wall that keep shifting from one neon color to the next. And the 12 Colonel Sanders dolls lined up like toy soldiers on a shelf that runs the length of the room.

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