2000s Archive

Straight From the Heart

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For someone who, for all his culinary prowess, comes off as a guileless innocent, the dolls seem wildly off-key. As do the black velvet paintings in the restaurant's lounge, and the cheeky messages ("WE HOPE YOU CAN COME AGAIN") stencilled on the bathroom walls. These are the imprint of Brenda Bent, Lee's wife and partner for the past 17 years. "Sometimes she does things," he says with a fond smile, "I don't even understand where they're coming from."

Lee met Bent, then a waitress and aspiring fashion designer, not long after the devastating loss of Covey. They didn't hit it off immediately (he thought she was a weird punk, she thought he was gay), but today they have three children, and the bond that connects them seems to inform every aspect of Lee's life. "With him," says Cosimo Mammoliti, one of the chef's closest friends, "it's all about family." Ask Lee what he does to relax: "Spend time with my kids and wife." Why he might write a cookbook: "My kids could show it to their friends." Peek in the office at Susur and you'll see walls plastered with poems to Dad and photos of Bent and the boys.

His family was the reason Lee dropped out of sight in 1997. After a decade at Lotus, the long hours in the tight confines had begun to take a toll on his body. But the Toronto economy suggested it didn't make sense to expand. "I wanted to do something in the big city," Lee says, "but one thing I'm very afraid of …" he trails off for a moment before finishing in his still heavily accented (and grammatically shaky) English, "I hate to be controlled by somebody."

Just before closing Lotus, he had met Andrew Tjioe, the wealthy young president of a group of Singapore restaurants, who was developing a place called Club Chinois. Tjioe asked him to come up with the menu and consult on his other establishments, and Lee figured a consulting gig would leave him time for the family. So in 1998, he took his talent abroad.

Club Chinois, modeled on a social club for the Shanghai elite of the 1930s, was an instant success, due in large part to the food Lee came up with—dishes like "three-way French and Chinese foie gras." "Every time I see a dish over there," he now says, "right away I would be thinking how it would work with European products."

At 8 P.M., the kitchen at Susur is a blur of heat and speed. Four times the size of the Lotus space, it easily accommodates its ten cooks—Lee's Malaysian-Chinese sous-chef, with him since the Lotus days; a woman he converses with in Cantonese; and eight variously goateed, sideburned, and tattooed Canadian men and women in their twenties and early thirties. Lee is stationed at the pass, under the skylight he was so intent on installing, pouring hot onion oil over halibut fresh from the Chinese steamer (his favorite piece of equipment), making sure the bamboo leaf beneath it is perfectly centered on the plate, then pushing it along—"Careful, this is hot." Bouncing around in his Birkenstocks, ponytail swinging, he gently calls orders to the staff—"Johnny Boy, you got me a custard?"—and finishes plates with equal parts haste and finesse. "He has the best right hand I've ever seen," manager John Gay remarks later. (In fact, like so many things about Lee, the hands are a total anomaly: Meaty and wide, they seem all wrong on his trim, five-eleven frame.)

Though he says he likes simple food ("Give me a bowl of spinach with sesame oil and soy, I'm very happy"), Lee's plates are anything but. Choreographed dances of flavor and texture, they pick up where his Lotus creations left off—with an added Southeast Asian twist. His lemongrass chicken wing, for example, an extension of a Thai-flavored entrée he came up with at Club Chinois, gets deboned and stuffed with leg meat, then fried and plated with roasted mango sauce, foie gras terrine, a garlic potato crisp, and a single cayenne-spiked caramelized pistachio. At other times he pairs the wing with both a mustard and a foie gras sauce and plates it with a sesame potato ring and foie gras confit.

Lee's sauces are the anchor of his cuisine. Based mainly on herbs and Chinese-style stocks ("Dairy just softens food up"), they turn up everywhere, and in ever-changing ways. During a single dinner at Susur you're likely to encounter truffle, lobster, and foie gras sauces; black olive, mustard, and miso sauces; a habanero and tomato sauce; a Chinese garlic and almond sauce; a burned-butter, soy, and lemon sauce; and something he calls a Thailandaise glaze.

Food should challenge people's perceptions, says Lee, and expose them to new ideas. "Normally when you see a dark sauce with meat, you think it must be a reduction. You know, that same European taste. I want to change all that." With his Wuxi pork, then, a riff on a slow-cooked dish from northern China, he serves a Chinese red rice wine sauce. He pairs it with any number of sides: an onion and fig confit and a crisp potato soufflé one night; braised rhubarb and cabbage and an apple-stuffed potato croquette the next; an onion and orange marmalade and corn flan yet a third.

"I find that if we're not focusing on one thing, we're not getting the most out of something," Lee says. "That's what I strongly believe in developing a cuisine: not jumping from pork and then to veal. I want to perfect one dish with different sauces, and present it with different combinations."

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