December 1, 2008
It would be difficult to find a great artist or athlete or political leader who has not experienced some sort of personal tragedy before lifting themselves up and finding great success. I know of a number of people who have personally overcome personal trauma, some more difficult to bear than others, only to lift themselves up from their solitude and turn themselves into someone or something larger than they might have become had the tragedy never occurred. There is something to having the life choked out of your spirit, then being forced to singularly resuscitate and rebuild ourselves, first our yearning to live, our desire to survive, and then to reignite the flame of our expectations.
A tragedy that many Americans may have already forgotten changed the life of one of North America’s most successful chefs occurred on September 1, 1983, when a Korean Air passenger jet was shot down over Russian territory by an SU-15 interceptor on orders from a Russian General. The episode was one of the most tense episodes of the Cold War, and at the time it became a political firestorm, as the Russians were suspicious of the timing of this incursion into their airspace, which occurred just a few hours before they were to test-fire an SS-25 mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missile not very far from where the plane accidentally veered off course. Depending on your point of view (or your country of origin), the Russians either acted too hastily, or (much more unlikely) that America had somehow sent this plane off track on purpose to test Russia’s military readiness, or to gain critical knowledge of a new Russian weapon near our borders. The latter is highly unlikely, but of course neither side’s story will ever be indisputably proven. But the simple fact is that all 269 passengers on that airplane that day were lost, including one US congressman, and also including Marilou Covey Lee, the wife of Canadian chef Susur Lee.
Personal tragedies are often seen by society as a giant wall, a blockage in the path to success or happiness. But often these encounters with personal trauma can provide the opposite effect, in effect equipping people with the inner strength to discover their purpose or their mission. Part of the secret of making this transition is to dig deep and discover valor and strength. As John Wayne once said, "Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” I wrote once in this magazine about Nobu Matsuhisa, whose first restaurant in Alaska burned to the ground after putting his entire life savings into it. He rose up from those ashes, little by little, and after years of hard work (and internal struggle) he eventually became one of America’s most successful restaurateurs, perhaps by discovering a stronger person than he was before that tragic fire. Everyone faced with difficulties has their own way of getting through the most difficult of days, and for Susur it was finding work that did not tax his mind.
"I was confused for almost six months,” he said. "I was not very successful in many things, and I felt a little bit disconnected, but I knew I had to work. I knew that if I went back to Hong Kong, it meant that I would have to do the same things I used to do there. So I just got a job to pay my rent and go about my day. I had no passion about trying to make something taste better. I was just doing a job.”
Now alone in Toronto, Susur considered moving back to Hong Kong, the city he was born in and where he had grown up so quickly as a teenager. His mother and most of his family still lived there, and while working conditions in the restaurant world had improved since his childhood, in his mind a move home would be a step backwards.
"I did not forget that in the ‘70s, there were many people who wanted to leave China and were escaping into Hong Kong. They would sleep in and hide in trains, and they’d freeze to death during the trip. Sometimes they’d swim over from China to Hong Kong and drown on the way. There were so many jobs that were under the table and they’d only pay you half a normal wage, so it was a very competitive business. Every restaurant job in Hong Kong had one person to perform that job all day long - if you peel potatoes, that was your job all day.” Susur didn’t want to return to that, but he also was too distressed to care much about the quality of his work.
A chance encounter with an old chef friend led Susur to what his friend called a "piece of cake” cooking job in a trendy area on Queen Street in Toronto that was popular with musicians, writers and poets. The tobacco-stained restaurant, called Peter Pan, was run by a group of laid-back Jamaicans who piped reggae music over loudspeakers all day and basically allowed Susur to "cook whatever you want, man,” just as long as the customers were happy. It wasn’t long before the artist mentality of that environment uplifted and empowered Susur, freeing him from the very structured training he had received in Hong Kong. It also didn’t hurt that Susur also met Brenda Bent at the time, a local artist and part-time waitress at Peter Pan who would later become his wife. It was perhaps that budding relationship, combined with the ability to work in a stress-free environment, which allowed Susur to reclaim his happiness and begin finding his own culinary style. It also helped that Peter Pan was in an eclectic area where customers were opened minded about the playful and culturally diverse dishes that Susur began to create.
"They were willing to try things and they were not fixated into that ‘oh his is not Chinese, it is not Japanese’ mentality. The openness of a Metro-Cosmopolitan mentality gave me a lot of opportunities to explore and to try different things, and I think that that was a really good turning point for me.”
Back in Hong Kong, Susur had been taught about different countries and cultures by Marilou. She had lived in France for several years, and took Susur there many times on extensive culinary tours before and after they were married, before they finally settled down in her home town of Toronto. Later, when Susur met Brenda during a period of time when he was starting to feel enough confidence to become more experimental in his cuisine at Peter Pan, Brenda’s background in clothing design helped Susur see his presentations in new ways. She taught him something that today seems so cliché, that "less could be more.”
"But when I first met her, she never tasted fresh broccoli before because she is from Winnipeg you see, everything is frozen! My kids always say, ‘How did you guys meet? She is so redneck and you are so Chinese.’”
With modest finances and with Brenda’s help, Susur left Peter Pan and opened his first restaurant, Lotus, in 1987. There, in a cramped and narrow space, he continued his experimenting. "Learning about North American culture was at Peter Pan. Being independent, being free, that began with Lotus,” he says.
Lotus had two small ovens, a blender, a food processor, a juicer, and furniture from the Salvation Army. Susur was able to hire two employees - a sous chef named Mark LeVeille, and Mark’s sister. The first few days didn’t go so well. First, there was the gas leak, shutting them down for three days. Then the water pipes burst and lost pressure, forcing them to close temporarily once again. Then Mark sliced off a piece of his finger, which turned out to be the second most frightful thing that happened to him that night. "I wrapped Mark’s little piece of finger on ice for him so that they could stick it back on,” remembers Susur. "I wrapped him up and drove him in my Beetle to the hospital – really, really fast. After the fact he said to me, ‘Chef, I was not scared when I cut the piece off my thumb, but when you drove, I was very, very scared.’ Whenever he sees me to this day, he puts his finger up.”
Susur and Lotus scored an early positive review from the influential Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper, but even before then his faithful followers from Peter Pan had already become regular customers. Susur updated his menu at Lotus not seasonally, or even weekly, but every single night. Toronto’s Chinatown was close by, as was the Kensington Market, so his food supplies were as culturally diverse as they were conveniently located. His constant craving for being creative and different with his French inspired Chinese cuisine turned Lotus into Toronto’s most successful restaurant.
Cooking came naturally to Susur, but running a thriving business on his own required many other skills he was not very enthusiastic about, including accounting and technology, two areas which to this day, Susur leaves to others. "I am very bad at calculating and even today I am completely an idiot at the computer. I do not know how to do e-mail. My sons just look at my cell phone, ‘Dad, you have 75 messages.’”
To understand how Susur developed the patience and accumulated the knowledge that made Lotus so successful and catapulted him to stardom, you could start with his youth, and learning the intricacies of martial arts. "When I was a kid, I learned martial arts, and I learned that you have to move physically and mentally, with timing, creativity, and also with feeling. Those are the most important things, and I applied to cooking those exact same things. And of course, we do stupid things, we drink and we smoke pot and all of those things, but the bottom line is we still have a goal.”
Susur was the youngest of 4 children, and when he was just 14 his older brother helped him land a job working in the bar of a restaurant in Hong Kong. That experienced ended prematurely, his martial arts experience and his immaturity combining to get him fired from his first-ever restaurant job after a fight with a fellow worker. But his experience there only further convinced him that he wanted to learn more, but this time in the kitchen. He also wanted desperately to travel, and worked as much as he could so he could afford his first trip out of the country. Susur calls it a "Big Curiosity” when he becomes intimately interested in something, and even at that time he had a driving curiosity to learn about cultures other than his own. He soon was able to go with friends on his first trip out of the country, to the Philippines.
"I did not even know how far the Philippines were. Because Hong Kong is a British colony, I did not even know about my own Chinese culture and Chinese history because I was not educated in that way. So the Philippines was the first expression for me of seeing another culture, of how religious another culture could be, what was their character was, what their family values were.”
Susur’s appetite to experience different worlds and various cultures was further whetted by Marilou, who had brought him to many countries in Europe while they were still in Hong Kong. Later, while he was at Peter Pan, he began returning to France by himself in order to learn French techniques first hand. Today, Susur’s cuisine considers the distinctive aspects of the cultural history of each of his dish’s components. He is more influenced by combining cultures than by combining ingredients. "In my early stages of cooking, how it looked and tasted was how I really articulated my food. But now I always think, how do I articulate a culture? Why do I combine them together? What makes the something taste good and where is that taste coming from? Is there a history for it, and if there is, what is the story it has to tell? It has to have roots. So, that is what I believe now with my cooking. How to articulate the food to people so they can understand what you are doing, that is very important to me.”
After ten years developing Lotus into a world class restaurant, Susur Lee had become a well-known chef throughout the world, and even flirted with opening a restaurant with the Nieporent group in New York. But the timing, for him, did not feel right. "I was not ready,” he says, "It felt like I was controlled because I felt so free in my own business. I was there (in New York) for an hour and I said ‘I could not get into this, it is not the right time.’” He was invited to cook at the James Beard house in 1994, and was receiving an endless stream of offers from around the world, which he continued to reject in favor of keeping his family – now consisting of Brenda and three boys – in Toronto. But eventually the tall chef grew tired after twenty years of hunching over stoves for long hours, exacerbating a persistent back problem. He began to consider a change in venue. He eventually accepted an offer to move to Singapore and work with renowned restaurateur Andrew Tijoe, which meant that he had to close down Lotus for good. He sold the building and moved on to a consulting job where he was able to work just five hours a day, allowing him to spend more time with his family than he was ever able to in Toronto.
His first task in Singapore was to help Tijoe open Club Chinois, a new restaurant that already had an experienced chef at its helm, who was planning on preparing classic Chinese cuisine. Susur’s job was to work with this chef and his team, and re-examine the entire business, from the front of the house to the work ethics to the cooking techniques. He was then asked to instill his western influences and creative culture-blending culinary artistry to make Tijoe’s restaurant a one-of-a-kind experience. It worked, and Club Chinois became an instant sensation. From there, the short-term consulting assignment became a full time job where Susur would oversee the cuisine and overall operation of Tihoe’s other Asian restaurant properties. He was able to walk into any of the restaurants and essentially change anything that he saw fit, from the smallest ingredient on a dish to a major service technique. During this time he also reconnected with a part of his history that he had once left behind. "I finally learned more about Chinese history, about understanding where I came from. I also learned more about food history. What I learned from Singapore gave me more culinary knowledge and diversity, and made me more exciting, so it made my dishes more exciting.”
After three years it became time for Susur to package up the valuable experience of opening and running large-scale restaurants, and bringing it back home to Toronto. His family had already moved back to Canada the year before, and his lucrative contract with Tijoe provided him with the financial resources to open something more substantial in Toronto than Lotus had been. But he had also helped Tijoe’s Tung Lok Group expand from 12 restaurants in 17 in three years. He had not only become a food artist, he had become quite a successful one, and he was fully aware that this time, the timing was right to go back on his own again.
"Singapore was like a little dream, but then it was ‘How do I get out of this lifestyle,’ I knew in my heart that I could not live forever like that, I know I could not work for somebody else forever. So after three years in consulting, I wanted to come back to North America.”
He came across a sweet real estate deal in an industrial area of King Street that would later become a highly sought after residential and retail center. Susur bought a 4000 square foot building and immediately began working on his next restaurant. It would be called Susur, and he designed his new 80-seater from the kitchen out, as opposed to from the dining room in. He made sure that he would have the ability to make eye contact with all his workers from his designated spot in the kitchen - everyone from his sous chefs to the prep tables to the dishwasher. Susur came up with a service idea that seemed crazy at the time, and is still unique – he designed his East/West fusion menus to be presented in reverse order. First an amuse, then the main, followed by smaller courses such as an appetizer, a fish course, then soup, and then finally dessert. Customers at first were confused, but Susur felt that his multi-course menus were best appreciated if guests tasted the heartier dishes first, before they became too full to enjoy them at the end of the meal. Similar to how he operated at Lotus, his daily trips to the local markets dictated the day’s tasting menu. Recessed lighting in the restaurant was designed to subtly change colors during the course of the dinner, from light blue hues to reddish/pink. Within a short time, Susur’s new eponymous restaurant was listed on the top of many culinary publication’s lists of the best restaurants in the world. In 2004 Susur opened a second restaurant next door that shared a common kitchen with Susur, called "Lee,” which was a more casual version of its sister establishment. The hip and trendy King Street area now had two ways – with varying price points - for Toronto foodies and tourists to experience Susur’s offerings.
After so much success branding his name, it was a surprise to many people to hear that Susur was going to change the name of his flagship restaurant in anticipation of his opening in New York. But it was not surprising if you know Susur. He felt that since he would be expending so much time and energy in New York, keeping the Susur name on an establishment where he would not personally spend as much time as he’d like would be unfair to his customers. His famous reverse degustation tasting menus, although he had excellent chefs with him in his kitchen, would no longer be served without his continued presence there. So the name was changed this past summer to Madeline’s. "Going away from the name of Susur, I did not feel it was a loss,” he explains. "I did not feel like, ‘oh my God, my brand!’ I do not have an emotional attachment to that. It is like another stage of life, and I like those changes.”
The name, in case anyone was wondering, is a tribute to his Mother. "My mother used to work for the British Army. She was a tea lady and washed the department’s clothing, among other things. The British did not know how to pronounce her name, so they said, ‘all right, your name is Madeline.’”
Susur’s wife Brenda designed the interior of Madeline’s, and since this summer’s reopening things have been going quite well there. The smooth transition has given Susur the time he needed to concentrate his efforts on Shang, his New York debut in the Thompson LES Hotel on the Lower East side of Manhattan. Nearly fifteen years after being offered a job in New York, he has finally arrived in the U.S. Part of the process was convincing his family, and his children, that the time had arrived.
"I think of all the time that I waited, and now I am ready. I have preserved my staff and now I feel comfortable that I can do more. My children are getting older and they understand my goals and my motivations. They do not feel that ‘daddy just works and he does not take care of me.’ I have taken care of them and they understand my work. So, they are so supportive.”
I asked Susur if he was worried about opening in a city whose critics are so unforgiving and at times there seem to be more amateur food critics and bloggers than customers.
”I have passed the major insecurities in my life,” he says, "so I am not going to worry about ‘Am I going to make it or not in New York?’ I will do my best, my very best. That is my goal, to not worry about the competitiveness, just do your thing and focus on that. I tend to only compete with myself.”
Susur says that Shang’s cuisine will be "old style Asian” cooking, and early previews of his dishes show his continued propensity to compose fusion-insired, futuristic and colorful works of culinary art. The location, to Susur, also provides him with inspiration from his past. "One thing I feel very comfortable about here at Shang is that it is in the Lower East Side area, and that reminds me of Peter Pan. I am very comfortable with the different kind of people there, the different cultures, the different ways of thinking, and even the different beliefs. I am totally cool with it; it is an interesting mix to me.”
Since Chef Lee is no longer able to serve his guests in Canada his trademark reverse degustation menu, does that mean he’ll bring it here to New York at Shang?
"I do not want to do a tasting menu at the beginning because the dynamic in the kitchen is very different, the service is different, and I want to be consistent with the menu. All the portions, the sizes, everything will be the same at first. Everything mechanically will be working very well. I want people to understand the tastes, textures, the timing and delivery and all of that. Once my guys know how to do that, then I’ll say ‘ok, now we are going to do a tasting menu.’ That causes excitement for my chefs, who like to do things that are a little bit more challenging.”
Doing things that are more challenging would be a more than adequate summation of Susur Lee’s long career in culinary arts. But the challenges he faces in the restaurant, even one in New York City, must look easy compared to some of the challenges he’s faced in his life.