Susur Lee’s Kitchen Kungfu (Food Arts)

Originally published in Food Arts, November 2008

The trend toward hot stoves in cool hotels brings Susur Lee from Toronto–at last–to open his newest restaurant in Jason Pomeranc’s fifth funcky boutique hotel here, Thompson LES,  where  Allen joins Houston.  While Pomeranc has been called the “thinking man’s sex symbol,” Lee is the cooking man and woman’s sex symbol, with  his Hollywood jaw line, carved cheekbones and long black hair blowing loose or sleeked in a ponytail. It’s as if Lee had been fashioned by the movies he watched growing up.  Another famous Lee, Bruce the martial-arts star, was his childhood hero, and chef Lee the cooking-arts star has kickboxed his way to international fame by his own personal fusion of East and West.

Long wooed by other Manhattan hoteliers and restaurateurs, Susur says he met Jason over a year ago.  The time was right, they clicked and formed a partnership. Susur says that he found Jason as laid back and easy going–yet as extremely, you could say as fanatically, hard working–as himself. The restaurant of 120 seats has its own entrance on Orchard Street, separate from the hotel’s entrance on Allen. Susur  already loved the neighborhood, he says, having watched it evolve from the 1980s when he and his wife, the clothing designer Brenda Bent, stayed with artist friends on Avenue A. His wife has designed the clothes for the wait staff, in black with a simple brush stroke which suggests Susur’s free-flowing hair. “And Jim Walrod,” Susur says,  “has come up with an absolutely brilliant interior design–clean, modern, comfortable and unpretentious, with dark wood blinds, both Asian and Western, pretty cool, pretty neat.”

In May Susur hadn’t fully settled on the menu and was off to Hong Kong to buy the tableware: “When I can see the plate, I can see the food.” Once he found the plate, a large white one, he found the logo and name of his place  in a Singapore magazine. It was the red stamped image of a little rabbit, a Chinese symbol for “upwards,” pronounced “Shang.” The city of Shang-hai means literally “growing upwards (shang) by the ocean (hai).” “That’s it,” said Susur, “the name of my new restaurant, Shang,  in the growing upwards city of New York.”

Susur  has always loved big cities, where city people want everything in restaurants to be “short, simple, intelligent, interesting–and graceful, meaning good service.” Scheduled to open mid October, Shang is designed to be “urban, electric, elegant but not pretentious, not too formal, appealing to a mix of people want to relax and enjoy and who will pause when the food arrives to appreciate the idea of it, the technique, and then to share it.” Combining Chinese sharing with Western style service fits his mix of  Western dishes with Asian flavors. “Lots of fresh vegetables and salads– like mache mixed with shaved fruits sprinkled with Chinese soy-bean crumbs.”  Above all, he wants people “to have a perfect evening, to enjoy the vibe.”

Eaters have been enjoying the Susur vibe since he opened his first small restaurant in Toronto, Lotus,  twenty years ago and where he continued to appeal to a mix of people over the last decade in twin adjoining restaurants, Susur and Lee.     Susur was designed to be the fancy one, set with cool minimalist elegance for a nine-course tasting menu that moved from heavy dishes to light in a sequence he called “reverse degustation.” Lee remains the more populist one, in a much larger space, down-home and informal, with a tapas-style menu for speedy grazing.

While he officially closed Susur at the end of April, in July he created a brand new restaurant at the same site of 601 King Street and named it Madeline’s for his vitally alive mother.  Not because that was her name–it was the name her employers, the British Army, gave her when they couldn’t pronounce her Chinese name. And not because she was a good cook.  “She was a terrible cook,” he says, but she was a great woman. The executive chef of Madeline’s is Domenic Amaral from Portugal, who’s been second-in-command at Lee for the past eight years. Designed by Toronto’s Karen Gable and Lee’s wife, the setting of the new place has replaced cool austerity with sexy European-Arabic fantasies. Tasseled cushions, elaborate carved screens,  deep red paisley-patterned walls, cut-velvet panels, turquoise velvet banquettes–this is a different world, a romantic vision of Susur’s peripatetic  European travels and Armal’s deeply-rooted Portuguese heritage. The menu made for grazers is described as “European Family style,” a la carte, small plates, with portions designed for two.  Armal says he is inspired by his mother’s good cooking of simple peasant dishes, definitely translated into upscale numbers like “sauteed rapini with Portuguese anchovies, chili, garlic and fresh squeezed lemon” or  “carpaccio of bison with garlic chip potato, Argan oil chives, aged reggiano and lemon juice”  or “scallops Provencal, with chorizo and lemon/garlic potato puree.”  If all this pan-European fusion seems a bit frantic, it’s meant to do the opposite–encourage the eater to sit back and relax. As Armal says, “It’s just about  food, talk…and a little wine.”

Susur’s habit of doubling his bets– opening two entirely different kinds of restaurant in two entirely different kinds of city within three months–has been a bit frantic.  But doubleness seems to suit him.  For a chef as singular as this one, Susur has lived a remarkably consistent double life. Even his cookbook, Susur: A Culinary Life (Ten Speed Press, 2005), is literally two in one: two separate books joined in the middle by a common cover. The first book contains his gastro-biography, the second his recipes. Before East-West fusion was invented as a word, Susur was living it.

When I first met him a decade ago, he was in Singapore helping chef Peter Knipp of Raffles stage  the 1997 World Gourmet Summit. Susur had moved to Singapore for three years to work as a consultant for the restaurant group Tung Lok, owned by Andrew Tijoe. Each of Tijoe’s 13 restaurants had been designed to display a different style of Asian cuisine, from Club Chinois, based on a famously stylish 1930s Shanghai restaurant, to the House of Mao, which dished up the traditional Hunan cooking of Mao’s birthplace, with waiters dressed in regulation Mao suits greeting customers as “Comrades.”  At Mao, Susur’s job was to put a regional spin, at Chinois a French spin,  on Chinese classics. No problem:  Susur was well grounded in the cultures and cuisines of both China and France.

Born in Hong Kong in 1958, Susur had moved up fast from washing woks in a Chinese joint at age 14 to working the stoves three years later at the Peninsula Hotel’s classic French restaurant, Gaddi.  “It’s not like I wanted to be chef,” Susur said. “It was more like surviving, it was a job,  a way of life.”  He identified food first with survival. When his mother worked all day for the British Army and came home at night, she threw everything into the same pot. It was only his father who was “very fussy about eating.” When he won on the horses he loved to bet on,  he would take Susur to dim-sum restaurants where the boy ate so much he got sick–each time he went. While Susur moved rapidly from Chinese woks to French pans,  he learned one thing, he says, “to survive.”  He learned never to ask, but to watch. “When you ask, you get yourself in trouble, because a Chinese chef thinks you want to take his job away.” The chefs were tough and mean to a kitchen boy, but when they scolded him, he listened–and learned.

Working first as a waiter at the Peninsula, he met his first wife, Marilou Covey, a Canadian English teacher ten years his senior.  “She was like a teacher, lover, mother.  I was lucky, very lucky.” Despite barriers of language, culture, age, and family disapproval, they got married in 1978 and took the long route to Canada by way of Asia and Europe before landing at Marilou’s hometown of Toronto. The couple lived in a youth hostel while Marilou finished her PhD and Susur worked three jobs a day: 6:30 AM at Le Gavroche Gourmand; 4:00 PM a vegetable cook at the Sheraton; 12:00 midnight a breakfast cook at a discotheque.  In his many kitchens, he learned basic differences between French and Chinese cuisines. He saw “how the Chinese use sauces to alter and oppose the flavors of a dish, rather than enhance a dominant flavor” as the French do. He observed that Europeans eat more with their back teeth, while Chinese favor their front teeth to enjoy textures that are crisp and chewy.

In 1983 Susur had just been hired as chef for Toronto’s  Le Connoisseur when his wife was offered a job at the University of  Hong Kong. They decided to move there  and she flew on ahead. She was on Korean Airlines flight 007 from Seoul to Hong Kong when the plane was shot down by a Soviet jet.  A widower at 24, Susur stayed in Toronto to become the chef at Peter Pan and traveled to France each summer,  eating at Michelin one-stars because he couldn’t afford the three-star celebrity spots. In 1987, he married a fellow worker, Brenda Bent, and together they refurbished  a small townhouse on Tecumseh Street in a blighted industrial area. He furnished tiny Lotus  with table and kitchenware from cheap shops in Chinatown and from the Salvation Army. “I was hungry to try more things, to do more, and I wanted control.”  He turned the 12-table sandwich shop, which had been owned by a happy-go-lucky hippy pair, into what he instantly felt was “My Place.” “During that time I hadn’t even heard the word ‘fusion,'” he said. “It was something that came naturally to me, put a little Peking duck with a little French foie gras, a matter of taste, what I love to eat.”

He worked very hard, rode his bicycle every day to Chinatown at 5:00 AM to get fresh fruits and vegetables.  “The focus is all on the plate, I want to make sure the food is good.”  He was full of happiness, he recalls, because he could do whatever he wanted, using very simple ingredients with great variety, and he got rave reviews from the start.  But after three years of working 24/7,  he jumped at the chance to work for a restaurant conglomerate in Singapore because it would allow him to spend a little time with his growing family–by this time he had two sons. Now he has three.

When he returned to Toronto in 2000, Susur was ready to buy a big place in downtown Toronto to create a new Susur vibe of surprise and delight. He built Susur from the kitchen out, designing a hot wall of burners and walkways, using new flavors like katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)  and zedoary (looks like thin ginger, tastes like wild mango and turpentine), exploring his staples of wheat starch, salted ume, nori, konbu, agar-agar, Chinese cane sugar.  He devised his own spice mixture that he calls “tomato jam”–tomatoes, garlic, curry leaves, red chilies, purple mustard seeds and onion oil. He made own stock tianjin, in which the fat of the broth is emulsified by boiling. On the plate, he made his own strange and rare combinations: jerked calamari with chipotle mayo, parsnip puree with cocoa nibs, roasted sunchokes with grapefruit brulee,  curry battered calamari with mango chutney and crispy fried seaweed, foie gras on a chipotle onion tart with provolone cheese  and a rhubarb-glazed apple ring, lamb loin in a mint chutney sauce with taro root dauphinoise.  As one blogger recently wrote, “You can’t get food like this anywhere else in Toronto.”

When Susur arrived in Toronto for the first time, what he expected, he said, was New York. “In my imagination all the cities of North America  would look like New York, like what I saw in the movies–lots of neon signs, lots of money, and everything very big.”  Now that he has at last arrived in the city that is New York, to find his place in its firmament, he can renew bonds with a gang of superstars who have long been pals. He was a member of the Rat-atouille Pack headed a decade ago by Jean-Louis Palladin, which met each year in upstate New York, just across the border from Toronto,  to hunt, cook and eat the game they shot for a 45-course all-nighter. Susur is also an old hand on TV’s Iron Chef, battling New York’s Bobby Flay.  But he’s not looking for battles or for a TV cooking show. “I like to interact with people in my kitchen,” he says. “It’s more real.”

On the Lower East Side, he faces the reality of the latest generation of rising stars like super-fusioneers David Chang and Peter Serpico of  Momofuku.  But Susur Lee is not hot for Iron Chef competitions. “For me it’s a mission of work,” he says. “I want to bring to New York all the experience that I’ve had, the things I’ve always believed in, with a staff that knows you work heart and soul toward that end. When you open a restaurant, when you open the curtain, you have to be ready.” Like Bruce Lee, Susur is always ready for the next move, which he hopes will be as upward as the name Shang.

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Posted on Nov 1, 2008