Chef Susur Lee: Worldly Cuisine, Local Ingredients
Food Internationally acclaimed chef and restauranteur Susur Lee shares his culinary inspirations, advice to fellow parents and fresh finds from the local farmers market.
Mediaplanet: What makes you passionate about the local food movement?
Susur Lee: Growing up in Hong Kong, I would go to the markets all the time. I discovered that the farmers were as passionate as chefs, and the relationship between the farmer and the chef is so important in creating good food. Since then, buying locally comes very naturally to me. My menus are inspired by what I find in the marketplace that day. When I opened my first restaurant, Lotus, in Toronto in 1987, I would take my Volkswagen and drive to the Ontario Food Terminal. By buying from the local farmers themselves, you can still smell the soil and taste the freshness. I had fresh vegetables and fruits directly from the farm to my restaurant’s tables.
MP: How do you keep your local favourites fresh all year round?
SL: In my kitchen, I preserve anything from peppers to peaches. You open the jar in the winter and it smells of summer — and it tastes just as fresh. Instead of recycling food in compost, a good way to not waste is to preserve. Some mousses and sauces that I use in my restaurants, Lee and Bent, are created by preserving summer's fresh, local foods. It is also another way to experience and share flavours from around the world — you can ship them anywhere.
MP: I understand that you are an ambassador for the “My Food My Way Campaign," a program spearheaded by the Toronto Education Workers and the Toronto District School Board, in effort to increase food education and bring healthier options to school cafeterias. Why is this initiative important to you?
SL: When my sons were younger, I would visit their school and see the junk they served in the cafeterias. I was shocked — what are you feeding my kids in school? The foundation of upbringing is vital; it takes knowledge about health and cultural diversity to influence positive food choices. It is important to remove the stigma of cultural food, especially when children are young and can be embarrassed to bring home-cooked meals to school. Canada is such a culturally diverse country, and I want to encourage children to understand that food can be experienced in a variety of ways — it can be healthy, culturally diverse and other cultures can be inspired by it as well.
MP: Food is a reflection of culture, how has culinary fusion inspired your dishes?
SL: I travel so much. I love interacting with local farmers and learning about different food cultures; it makes you richer. For example, my Peking and Char Sui Duck — a menu favourite at Lee — is a fusion of east and west: French chicken liver pâté combined with Beijing duck garnish.
MP: What inspired you to pursue a career in the culinary arts?
SL: I was educated in food at a young age. My father would take me to dim sum — he would open up the newspaper and say, ‘Son, you order whatever you want,’ and by the time he closed the paper, ‘Oh my god, son, you ordered so much!’ I loved food as a little kid. Through eating, I could experience food culture; I could feel and imagine things and it satisfied me. It is like taking music apart, I can sense the flavour and I have a great memory of taste.
MP: What advice would you give to parents trying to instill good food choices in their children?
SL: There is a Chinese saying: “If you don’t see, you don’t know." You cannot force children to learn about eating healthy, but you can introduce them. Try to limit take-out food, take them to farmers' markets, always put good food on the table and expose them to a variety of foods. Educate them by showing, as good food cannot lie.