Susur and sons

Celebrity chef heading to Dundas Street West to open a restaurant with his kids



Cheeseburger spring roll. Mexican goat cheese tart. Chinese doughnut fritters. If there are two things Toronto’s acclaimed celebrity chef Susur Lee’s creations do, they get people talking and mouths watering.

When word broke online that Lee was sniffing around the burgeoning Dundas Street West strip, the twitteratti went wild with speculation. Turns out they were right. Lee has a new project in the works — this time, his kids will be front and centre. The creator of Lee and Lee Lounge on King Street West has pulled almost his entire family on board. Lee’s eldest two sons, Levi Bent-Lee, 21, and Kai Bent-Lee, 20, will manage the new venture while his wife of 26 years, Brenda Bent, will design the interior. (Lee’s youngest son, Jet, is 13.)

Lee says this venue — set to open in spring 2012 on trendy Dundas Street West — will be more about his sons than him. “My part will be making sure the food is good,” Lee says. “They’ll be running it.”

The celebrity chef sounds confident and a tad protective about the family endeavour.

“They [Levi and Kai] grew up in restaurants and have travelled around the world eating at different restaurants,” he says. “They’ve been really mature for many years. I want them to have ownership — to be responsible and see how they grow and perform.”

Although much is to be decided about the new restaurant, Levi Bent-Lee says they are leaning toward serving food with a mixture of Japanese, Latin and European influences.

“No one else will be doing the same style of food,” Bent-Lee says.

The space, which is in the process of being designed, will be “small and intimate.”

“When I did fusion food, no one else was doing it in the world — I hadn’t even heard the word ‘fusion.’”

Susur Lee started working in restaurants at the age of 16, as an apprentice at Hong Kong’s luxurious Peninsula Hotel.

Born in a working class neighbourhood in Hong Kong, Lee says it was his father who helped spark his interest in food by taking him out for dim sum.

“My father loved eating in restaurants because my mom is a terrible cook,” Lee says.

Once Lee started working in the industry, he wanted to be one of the best in his field, a mindset he says is rooted in his heritage.

“In Asia, learning a skill is considered a life skill — like a watch-smith or a jewellery maker — like a master,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ll be a chef, I’m going to be cooking, I’ve got to be good.’ ”

But although he was always a hard worker, Lee says it was arriving in Toronto at the right time that gave him the chance to stand out.

“I thought, ‘If I go back to Hong Kong, I will be just another stationed chef,’ ” Lee says. Although he didn’t have family in Toronto, Lee says working at restaurants had its own communal feel.

He found work in the kitchens of the Westbury Hotel and Le Trou Normand. When Lee was hired on as head chef at the Queen Street West fixture Peter Pan in 1984, he met Brenda — a waitress at the restaurant and a fashion design student at Ryerson. When he opened his own restaurant, the legendary Lotus, in 1987 — a 12-table boutique-style establishment — Lee really began to find his way and make a name for himself. The work was so all-consuming, Lee lived above the restaurant with his family. “It was crazy,” Lee says about the lifestyle.

Critics swooned as the chef became known for his cuisine that merged Chinese and French.

“Back then I felt I could do anything with cooking,” Lee says. “When I did fusion food, no one else was doing it in the world — I hadn’t even heard the word ‘fusion’ until a critic wrote it.”

At the time, Lee says restaurant-goers wanted to try new things, which drove his creativity and curiosity when it came to inventing dishes and pushing the boundaries of traditional cuisine.

But a decade after Lotus opened, Lee closed its doors and moved his family to Singapore.

He took on work as a culinary consultant for a group of hotels and restaurants and “re-energized” for about three years. “It was the best thing that happened to my family,” Lee says.

Upon returning to Toronto, Lee opened Susur on King Street West, the restaurant where he was lauded by critics at home and internationally for the next eight years. Zagat labelled him a “culinary genius” and Food & Wine magazine called him one of the “ten chefs of the millenium.” Susur made Restaurant Magazine’s list of the top 50 restaurants.

Not one to hide from the spotlight, Lee appeared on Food Network’s Iron Chef America battling Bobby Flay and was a finalist on Top Chef: Masters.

With celebrity and success has come opportunity for Lee, who owns restaurants in Singapore and Washington.

Although pulled in different directions geographically, Toronto is home for Lee.

“When I arrive in Toronto, the feeling is ‘Ahh, thank God I’m home,’ ” Lee says. “It’s very emotional to me.”

Although he spends time at each of his restaurants, Lee tries not to be gone for longer than two weeks a month. Still, the culinary adventures feed his creativity, and he connects with his heritage through cooking.

“More and more my philosophies are going back to where I came from,” he says. “I’m always learning about Asian ingredients — flavour and combination — and I’m looking for new ingredients.”

Lee’s menus at his side-by-side King Street West restaurants offer, for the most part, sharing plates that no doubt add to the convivial ambience. His sons Levi and Kai are already helping to manage Lee and Lee’s Lounge.

“I’m excited more than anything,” Levi Bent-Lee says about running the new restaurant with his younger brother. “We [he and Kai} grew up in the environment and it comes naturally to us.”

His father agrees. “They’re calm and they’re still liking it.”