Lee doesn't just improvise night to night, he does it minute to minute. "If he's got something in his brain," says one of his cooks, "whether it's six or eleven at night, he's gonna do it." And like a bunch of seasoned musicians, they've learned to follow his lead. "We've seen elements of the stuff before," says another, "and it's like, 'Well, okay, I know what that is, I know where he's coming from.'" Unlike most restaurants, says Gay, which stick to a specific repertoire, "We're just following whatever emotional moment he's having in the back."
Diners at Susur are increasingly doing the same. Less than 20 percent of them order off the menu these days, opting instead to have Lee send out whatever he chooses. And since last winter, they've even been letting him do it in reverse. The idea came to him during a snowstorm, when people arrived chilled and primed for something with heft. He tried following substantive dishes like venison and pork with increasingly lighter and smaller ones, and the diners finished everything put before them. The "inverted pyramid" style has reigned ever since.
Susur lee couldn't have gotten where he is without a serious amount of determination. At Lotus, he put up the walls himself, rode his bike to the market every morning to pick out ingredients, and spent not a few nights curled up on the kitchen floor as his stocks simmered on the burners above. His friends joke about the lake cottage, bought five years ago and visited exactly twice, and Lee himself admits he was "totally bummed out" when he recently lost out on a chance to compete on Iron Chef. Nor does he deny that he has ambitions to open a place in New York. "There's something about the challenge of it," he says, "I think, 'I could do that.'"
At the same time, though, what strikes you about the chef is his almost childlike openness, the total lack of calculation that goes into what he says and does. He freely admits that he doesn't read books ("Forget it. I get totally lost") and he's at a loss when you ask him about his other interests. ("This is the only thing I know.") The lack of self-involvement also comes across in Lee's interactions with the people around him. When an admirer requests a picture with him at New York's James Beard House, he immediately turns to gather his staff, and he gives them credit every chance he gets.
Having a family has helped him learn to deal with people, says Lee, and to keep things in perspective. Also, he picked up some managerial tips in Singapore, where he had to oversee some 35 chefs. ("They look at me, 'This North American Chinese with earring gonna tell me how to change my barbecue that I've been roasting for thirty years?'") Whereas in the Lotus days he used to lose his temper, these days when a cook does something wrong, he simply takes him aside for a quiet chat. "Getting to know who they are," he says, "that's a big power in running a successful kitchen."
So while other chefs rant at their line cooks and strategize about the best ways to further their careers, Susur Lee concentrates on what's in front of him and continues to take it slow. "You have to focus on something to make it better and better," he says. "Then you can think about moving on."
601 King Street West
From Susur Lee: To get a really meaty-tasting stock that's not heavy, make it the way the Chinese do—without browning the bones.