Interview with Chef Susur Lee
Tejal Rao: What are some of your favorite cookbooks?
Susur Lee: I have so many favorites! When I come across books I don’t know I am very curious. I like simple cookbooks from China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia; I’m fascinated by new and old cuisines. Most Asian chefs don’t write big fat cookbooks with lots of photography. They’re very straightforward and that’s really inspiring for me. Asian food is my comfort food so I like seeing recipes for Beef Rendang, Cantonese Street Food, and Chinese snacks.
TR: How often do you go back?
SL: I try to go back once a year. It’s always really inspiring. When I was in Shanghai three months ago, a friend I used to work with in Singapore invited me to go to a few different restaurants in China. I had a great time at The Government Hotel learning about freshwater crab and pickling. I had this amazing, very traditional dumpling called a suckling dumpling. Basically it’s one big dumpling in a rice bowl steamed with stock inside, and when they serve it, they poke a hole and give you a straw! It’s very traditional, so I suppose they used to use a bamboo straw in the olden days. I thought, wow, this is fantastic!
TR: Did it inspire any dishes?
SL: Yes, I make a lobster-filled squid ink ravioli in lobster consommé, with the stock inside. But I have to add meat; North Americans need meat!
TR: The book is very unorthodox but completely cohesive. Recipes aren't grouped by fish, game, vegetables, or soups, but rather by where they plot in your life. Why did you choose to set your book up as two separate books?
SL: Bruce Mao helped me come up with the idea. I told him I wanted to combine recipes with history and make it very personal. He came up with this idea and I knew it was right for me.
TR: You were compared to Toronto's new wave of chefs Michael Stadlander and Jamie Kennedy-how did you fit into this scene?
SL: Oh, that was such a long time ago! I’m so much more experienced now. Now I like to combine the old things with the new things. Going back to the old stuff has become another way of training myself.
TR: In the book, it sounds like your food was almost immediately embraced by the Toronto culinary scene. Did you encounter any difficulties in the evolution of your risky style?
SL: No, not really. I was very young and I had no responsibilities, no problems, no fear. My whole focus was on cooking and experimenting, on learning and recording my experiences. My only fear was that I might produce bad dishes!
TR: Sweetness plays an important part in the composition of your dishes. Cane sugar, lobster meat, compotes, mirin, there's always an element of sweetness to balance out your dishes. But there are no dessert recipes in the book! I know you've had a French pastry background-how does pastry fit into your restaurant?
SL: I really like to make balanced food and draw from different sources of sweetness. In my pig’s ear terrine I like to use cane sugar. That kind of sweetness isn’t very harsh; it doesn’t destroy your appetite. Cane sugar gives you another kind of taste that’s very subtle and much more refined than white sugar. I don’t have a pastry chef at the restaurant; I come up with pastry ideas myself and share them with my apprentices.
TR: Any plans for a dessert cookbook?
SL: I’d love to but there’s no time! I joke sometimes that I’m going to live in the hills so I can finish all my projects. But one example of a dessert at Susur right now is a sweet and sticky rice dumpling. I make a sweet chestnut puree and I wrap it like a manju, a Japanese dessert. Then I roll it in hazelnuts and serve it with a warm chocolate sauce. It’s very decadent, but not too sweet. Sometimes I serve it with a nutmeg ganache as well, which makes it a little spicy.
TR: The last chapter in the first book is my favorite. It really gives an insight to the energy and philosophy at Susur. The kitchen sounds so well-planned! What are some of your favorite features? I know that the steamer was in your presentation, the book mentions the steamer as well….
SL: Yes, I love my steamer! It’s a typical Hong Kong style steamer, so there’s no digital face or anything, just water and fire. But it gives me a constant, consistent steam penetration. I’d say it’s the most important feature in my kitchen. I use it for so many things, not just cooking. I wrap plates in saran wrap and keep plates warm in there too! They never break, never overheat.
TR: In the book you say the three most important things in your kitchen are garlic, the staff's good mood, and that burst of energy before service. How do you keep your cooks in a good mood?
SL: Well, kitchen culture is very different. Running a kitchen is like going into a nuthouse and organizing all the patients into performing a play. Sometimes I say if I wasn’t a chef I’d be a psychiatrist for chefs; I’d probably do very well. I grew up in the streets, not in school, so it was all about people. I think that’s helped me get along with my cooks really well. I know when to talk to them and when to leave then alone. I know when to give them a hard time and when to back off. It’s very complicated. And while I think humor is important, so is discipline.
TR: What’s family meal like at Susur?
SL: Well the guy supposed to be cooking it is late today, but we’re having Roma tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, pesto with marjoram, just something simple. Every day we sit down and eat and some guys sit outside. Let’s be honest, we’re not sitting around and holding hands; it’s not wine and chat time, but we always have time to eat together.
TR: Do you really have a Cadbury bar and espresso before service?
SL: Yes, sometimes I need that juice! I really like it; it’s my little jump! I used to not like espresso but as I got older, I started to need it. I think it’s all mental though.
TR: You describe the skate dish with crab, truffles and periwinkles as being luxurious, and very 80's. What ingredients have inspired you this year? What dish is very Susur 2006?
SL: Sometimes the very old is the very new. Most old things are a foundation of technique and knowledge. I discovered rice paper, not the Vietnamese one but the Chinese one; it’s as thin as silk, it’s just amazing! When I was a kid, I think I had it in fried shrimp toast. It’s almost like a vegetarian caul fat: thin and melts on heat! Right now, I’m using it to make my version of an Oyster Rockefeller. First I braise the oyster, then I cool it down. I make a cream of half chyrsanthemum leaf, half spinach with diced chorizo, garlic, cheese, nutmeg and parmesan then wrap it around the braised oyster. I seal the whole thing in the rice papar, coat it in Panko and then deep fry it. I call it a Rockefeller Croquette!
TR: Why did you choose Toronto to set up shop?
SL: I thought that, running a hectic restaurant, I could have a higher quality of life for my family in Toronto. I learned a lot from my time working here and it’s close enough to other big cities.
TR: What’s in the future for you?
SL: I would really like to explore the market in the States. I’ve been learning with my two restaurants in Toronto for seven years now and I want to give myself a big push and branch out--maybe to New York.