Q&A: Iconic Canadian chef Susur Lee

The early fusion adopter on Asian food, burgers and Drake

Photo by Jason Finestone.
Photo by Jason Finestone.

Celebrated Canadian chef and Chopped Canada judge Susur Lee has been serving up modern interpretations of Asian dishes for over two decades. His culinary delights can be found at his five restaurants in Toronto, each one tempting your palate with a distinctive twist. Eat North chats with Susur Lee on his hidden burger skills, his new restaurant with the one and only Drake, and what it takes to be a success.

You introduced “Asian fusion” to Toronto over 20 years ago. What are your thoughts on the rise of contemporary modern Asian cuisine in Canada over the last few years?

It's so great! It's not only Asian [food], fusion is East meets West. The world is fused together. Look at the communication with technology; people are communicating in a very different way. It's the same with food, so connected and at the same time, so far away.

Where do you derive your inspiration from to keep things fresh and innovative?

It's great to have children that have the same love that I do! They give me the motivation to be innovative, keeping them interested. My sons have been working with me since they were teenagers. It's a great return when I see what they like about the business. It's wonderful to see them strive to understand business and the passion for food.

You recently partnered up with Canadian rap artist Drake for Frings. How did that come to be?

Drake comes to the restaurant Lee very often. He is a friend of my sons. It just happens that he loves my food and that's how things came together. He also loves the city so it was a good fit!

I see there is The Susur Burger on the menu at Frings. Tell me about that.

It is really what my family loves on the menu, like the meatballs from my wife. Many people don't know I used to flip burgers at Peter Pan. It is where I met my wife over 30 years ago. When my kids were growing up, I already had a gourmet restaurant. One day they said, “Dad, I want to take you to NYC to try some burgers.” I went and tried different burgers and even then they still did not know I could make burgers!

You are originally from Hong Kong, Do you still travel there and scope out new culinary ideas?

My whole family is still there. When I visit, I stay at a hotel that is really close to the markets. I pick one of the best markets in Hong Kong to buy food and see all the street food. That's the way I grew up, so it gives me a little bit of that relationship.

What are some of the key attributes you possess as a chef that keeps your restaurants so successful?

It takes both hands to clap. You have to make sure you inspire the staff, make sure you take care of them and they like what they do by inspiring them with food and creativity. You pay attention to them. A business never runs by itself. People may say that it does, but no, it never does. Who wants to be a motor or just a little robot working in the restaurant? We need human elements.

Is there one dish of yours that you covet and is your go-to recommendation when you have friends or family visiting?

My signature dish. It’s 19 different ingredients in a slaw! You see people from Europe, Asia, North America -- they love that dish! The flavour profile is really healthy, gluten free and also vegan. It's a year-round salad with great texture and lots of flavour. You would never get bored with a dish like that.

Where do you see Canada's food scene evolving to in the next few years?

I really feel like the word fusion that we were talking about, that I started so long ago, is coming back. You just can't eat food one way. There are so many different cultures that inspire. If you look at the supermarkets now, they are filled with different sections like Asia, Middle Eastern, etc. That shows us how people like to cook at home.