IRON MAN

Canadian master chef Susur Lee matches culinary wits and will with Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. Secret ingredient: killer instinct.

SHANDA DEZIEL February 6 2006

IRON MAN

Canadian master chef Susur Lee matches culinary wits and will with Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. Secret ingredient: killer instinct.

SHANDA DEZIEL February 6 2006

IRON MAN

Canadian master chef Susur Lee matches culinary wits and will with Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. Secret ingredient: killer instinct.

BY SHANDA DEZIEL • They didn’t dare say it, but you could see it in their eyes that Susur Lee and his two sous-chefs thought they were going to mop the kitchen floor with Bobby Flay. Lee, one of Canada’s most celebrated chefs—known for his innovative combinations of Asian and European cooking styles— was in Manhattan last week to tape an episode of Iron Chef America, in which he went up against Flay, the brash New York-based grill and BBQ master. It was a brilliant matchup: two chefs with vastly different styles but similarly competitive spirits. Flay is famously arrogant and serious about winning. And Lee, in his own words, was “going for the kill.” This episode of the popular series—in which competing chefs each make a fivecourse meal in 60 minutes using a secret ingredient revealed to them at the beginning of the show—will air on the Food Network sometime in the spring. We’re not about to divulge the secret ingredient or the winner, but let’s just say the show’s a nail-biter.

After nervously flubbing his lines during the introductions, Lee eased into the kitchen with grace, dazzling with his fast and obnoxiously loud vegetable chopping, and moving so beautifully in sync with his sous-chefs they resembled ballerinas. He introduced at least two ingredients that had never been used on the show before: culled fat wrap and edible orchid. And he came in with plans to make seven dishes instead of the required five. “I’m showing no mercy,” he said to the audience.

Outside of the competition, Lee’s a different person, the ego and killer instinct giving way to a curious, gentle nature. At a photo shoot in Manhattan’s Chinatown, he followed the photographer’s lead on where and what to eat, complimenting him on his recommendation of green papaya salad topped with BBQ beef at a local Vietnamese spot. Walking around Chinatown with Dustin Gallagher, 24, and Bartosz Murawicki, 26, his sous-chefs for the show, Lee pointed out ingredients his mother would use to make Chinese New Year dinner: black moss, Chinese olives, wood fungus and burdock root—whose long brown stalks are thought to be an aphrodisiac. He was most excited by ginkgo nuts. “Oh, this is so good, one of my favourites. My mom uses it to make soup. This is especially good if someone’s pregnant, for the production of breast milk.” And he was drawn to an old man cobbling shoes on the sidewalk: “When I was in Singapore, I took my shoes to a very old man to fix. Two days later I went back and he was dead, so I lost my shoes.”

Over the past seven years, the Hong Kongborn chef has opened and presided over two of Toronto’s hottest, best-reviewed restaurants: the upscale Susur and the more casual Lee, which sit side by side on King Street West. He’s been celebrated in Food & Wine, Saveur and Gourmet, and praised for creating the backwards tasting menu, in which the courses move from heaviest to lightest. “It’s very unorthodox,” he says. “It’s very hard for Europeans to accept the idea—turning the culture upside down. I don’t really think that a lot of chefs agree with me—but people enjoy it, the customers, and that’s what is most important.” These days Lee is more relaxed than ever. According to his PR manager, Rhonda Peebles, he’s become less reserved and more comfortable in the spotlight. And though he gets anxious when away from the restaurants, he is learning to let go. Gallagher echoes that sentiment. “He’s getting softer,” he says. “It was harder those first years. He was a lot more hands-on and a lot more aggressive. It’s changing, he still has his standards by all means, and he’s still always there and creating the menus—but he’s learning to trust his baby with someone else.”

Except for the overly wrinkled knuckles on his somewhat scarred hands, Lee does not look 49 years old. The father of three boys (Levi, 16, Kai, 14, and Jet, 7) with his wife, Brenda Bent, Lee is in great shape. He plays tennis three times a week, sometimes with his older sons, both national team members. “Of course, they beat me,” says Lee. “They have me run from side to side to side.” He pauses a minute and then sighs, “I love them.” His middle son, Kai, has begun to take an interest in food. “The other day I made a pear gratin with him at home,” says Lee. “And he said, ‘Wow, it took you only five minutes.’ They’re starting to understand what it takes to do something really well.” Lee claims one of his main reasons for participating in Iron Chef America is that the boys watch the show and wanted him to do it. He didn’t bring them along. “I know they would joke around, make faces, make me laugh. And I would laugh, of course, and break my concentration.”

While in New York, he skipped the worldclass restaurants of the chefs he knows, like JeanGeorges Vongerichten (Jean Georges, Mercer Kitchen) and Thomas Keller (Per Se), in favour of smaller establishments. He wanted to try The Spotted Pig, a Greenwich Village gastro-pub famed for its roquefort burger, or Fatty Crab, a tiny Malaysian restaurant in the same neighbourhood. But neither was taking reservations. Peebles, who made the arrangements for a table of seven, didn’t

• he drop was Lee’s in New name York or for the Iron fact Chef America. Instead, Lee settled for a steak house near the hotel. After the taping he was content to fill up on Doritos and red wine—though he eventually made it to Sapa, a chic Asian-fusion restaurant in Chelsea, for a long night of drinking and blowing off steam with Gallagher and Murawicki.

Lee started life in humbler circumstances. He grew up in government-subsidized housing in an impoverished part of Hong Kong. His father was an accountant and his mother a tea lady for the British army. “When the sergeant rang the bell, she made the tea,” he says. “When the sergeant wanted to have his uniforms ironed nice and straight, she’d get out the starch. She worked really hard, her hands are all rough.” Asked if his parents are still alive, he answers, “They’re still in love! They are in their 80s—in their 60s they rediscovered themselves and fell in love again. Now when you see them, they are holding hands walking down the street. It’s very cute.” He says his oldest sister (he’s the youngest of four) helped raise him and she was a good cook. He started in the kitchen at 14, washing woks at a Peking-duck restaurant—eventually moving on to the venerable Peninsula Hotel and rising in the ranks to chef saucier.

In the late ’70s, Lee met a Canadian, Marilou Covey, who was teaching English in Hong Kong. They married and moved to Toronto, where he worked three kitchen jobs to help put her through graduate school. After she died on the 1983 Korean Air Lines flight that was shot down by the Soviets, he grew even more serious about his profession. He opened his first restaurant, Lotus, in 1987; he and his second wife, Bent, then a fashion designer, lived upstairs. After a decade of success, he closed the place and moved the family to Singapore, where he took a position of consulting chef for the restaurants of Andrew Tjioe, who was determined to reinvent Chinese cooking in his dining rooms. After that, Lee came back to Toronto. He opened Susur in 2000, and Lee in 2004.

The kitchen at Susur is jammed with 15 or so mostly young cooks, who carry out Lee’s vision as he stands off to the side, stretching his back against the wall. “He hires with heart and soul,” says Len-Jinn Liang, Susur’s maître d’, “not necessarily based on experience.” Lee jokes that it was aesthetics that got Murawicki the job. “When I met Bart,” says Lee, “I couldn’t take him seriously because he brought his beautiful, beautiful girlfriend with him to the interview. I said, ‘Are you looking for a job? Or areyou looking for a job?’ ” Gallagher was 19 when he started with Lee four years ago. “He’s a friend now,” he says. “Yes, he is my boss, my chef—but also, I’m sure he’d agree, we’re peers.”

During the Iron C/ze/f aping, Gallagher was given star treatment by the show’s commentators for the way he sliced and unrolled a scallop, while Murawicki brought in TV’s Red Green ethic when he frantically wrapped his finger in duct tape after a pear-peeling accident. At the end of the 60 minutes, the two sous-chefs shared a sweaty hug with their mentor—the emotional high point of the show.

Next up was the judging, and Lee wowed the panel of three experts with his succulent meats and gorgeous plate presentations. Comedian Mo Rocca took a particular liking to the fourth dish: a stuffed Chinese pancake, topped with a quail egg and caviar. “In my dreams, there’s a drive-through window where I can get one of these every morning. It’s McDelectable.” They were impressed by Flay as well, who seemed more adventurous than usual. “We saw an excited Bobby Flay today,” says Kevin Brauch, the Canadian-born floor reporter on Iron Chef America. “He raised his game. We saw new dishes—he’ll usually do

variations on a theme, but we saw some stuff today that let you know he was inspired.”

During the judging, Flay sneaked a bite of one of Lee’s meat dishes, shaking his head in disbelief. He said later, “It was outrageous. I was like, ‘Oh, we’re cooked, because it was so good.’ ” There was no argument from Lee— who felt confident he’d triumphed. “Today I pushed beyond the limit,” he told journalists after the show. “The food I cooked takes time, I used the pressure cooker, slow cooking, a lot of processes—not just grill and put on the plate.” Still, Brauch (who’s on an 18-0 streak for guessing the winner) thought the judges were leaning toward Flay.

When Lee ordered champagne that night at dinner, there was a lot to celebrate (though that’s not to say he won)—Lee and his chefs had made six dishes on Iron Chef instead of the usual five, the whole ordeal was finally over, he got news that his son, Levi, just won a tennis tournament back in Toronto. Best of all, it was time to eat. M