Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A chef called Susur


Susur Lee is riding the wave of culinary stardom that he himself created through sheer effort and determination.

THE mention of Chef Susur Lee not only evokes the flavours of lychee with foie gras mousse or roast lamb loin with Sichuan eggplant stew, it also brings up the interesting subject of nameology, a coined word meaning the science of names.

You see, Susur is not this super chef’s real name. It’s Steven, a name this 53-year-old readily admits that he had never liked. It has something to do with the way it was pronounced by his brethren back in Hong Kong, where he started his career as an apprentice at the Peninsula Hotel at the age of 16.

“You know how they have a way of making English names sound Cantonese?” says Lee wryly.

The decision to settle for Susur had come about when this Hong Kong native, who is now based in Toronto, was in his mid-teens.

“I liked Susur for the sound. It was neither masculine nor feminine,” he says.

Driven to succeed: Chef Susur Lee’s competitive spirit led to his rise from last place to tie for overall second place in the ├╝ber competitive Top Chef Masters cooking show last year.

Interestingly, nameology is about vibrations, a wave phenomenon which is believed to have an electromagnetic effect. Indian ancient seers believed that if these vibrations connected well with one’s birth planet, it will make the individual highly successful, making all the difference between fortune and misfortune. For Lee, who currently owns five restaurants in Toronto, Washington, New York and Singapore, there is no doubt that the name “Susur” has seen to his phenomenal rise in the culinary world. Lee was in Kuala Lumpur recently to give us a hint of what he’ll be preparing for the Hennessy X.O.’s Appreciation Grows Gastronomy dinner event that will be held in Malaysia at the end of October.

The youngest of six siblings and the son of a tea lady, Lee was heralded as one of the “Ten Chefs of the Millennium” by Food And Wine magazine and was called an “improvisational artist” by Gourmet magazine in 2000. Shang, Lee’s New York restaurant, is a destination for the city’s A-list society and Zentan, his restaurant in Washington, has been graced by Michelle Obama. Nearer to local shores, there is Chinois in Singapore, a partnership with the Tung Lok Group which owns and manages over 40 restaurants in Singapore, Indonesia, China, Japan and India.

Of course Lee’s success does not simply rest on a name alone.

His is a character that does not take well to defeat.

Kelly Choi, the host of Top Chef Masters which airs over Bravo TV mentioned Lee in her blog (www.bravotv.com/bio/kelly-choi) when the chef made an appearance on the show’s second season last year. Choi had observed how the jovial Lee had suddenly turned “fiercely dark, almost tormented” when the results announced that he had only received two and a half stars and was placed last.

According to Choi, Lee’s anger lasted minutes and she could feel the heat from his rage emanating through his pores. Pride must have spurred Lee to go all out during the elimination round of the show and he roared back from the dead to clinch the second spot to move into the champion stage. The winner was Marcus Samuelsson; Lee tied for second place with Rick Moonen.

Later, Choi, who tasted the chef’s competition fare would describe his menu of slow-roasted curry chicken roulade stuffed with rich sausage and his creamy polenta and grits paired with sweet, chunky tomato jam as “utter ambrosia”.

Evidently, this brand of warrior spirit had been in him from day one.

“You ask me what has driven me to do well from the beginning? Back in the 1970s, there were plenty of aspiring cooks from China who would be more than eager to work in Hong Kong. So, if an apprentice was not up to mark, he could be easily replaced,” says Lee.

But ask him what has been his driving force and he mentions his mother.

“She worked until her hands were red and raw and she cried all the time,” recalls Lee who describes this period in his life as a difficult one.

Twenty-two restaurants and one culinary cookbook later, Lee can still recall his mother giving him a drumstick from a steamed chicken in a bid to chase his bothersome presence out of the kitchen. Back in the 1950s, when chicken drumsticks had not yet been subjected to mass production, getting such a choice piece was an indication that a child was much loved.

“My mother is my motivator and educator. She taught me how to stand up for myself,” he says.

Lee had, in fact, almost followed in his mother’s footsteps. His first post in the food and beverage industry was as a bartender; he recalls washing hundreds of glasses every day, the very same thing his mother did. Something must have clicked in his mind then or maybe it was because he had found a fun bunch of friends in the kitchen department. Either way, he worked up the nerve to approach the manager to request for a transfer.

Though Lee does not serve canapes in his restaurants, he could not resist adding the finishing touches to these Pacific oysters. They come with julienned pickled cucumber and yuzu dressing.

“I always had an ‘establishment’ in the kitchen. When I was in the bar, the kitchen would give me food and, in exchange, I’d give them drinks,” chuckles Lee mischievously.

It was in the kitchen that he became part of the brotherhood, a bunch of old-school Chinese chefs whose colourful characters could only be matched by their “flowery” vocabulary.

One name which Lee can still recall is a colleague who goes by the moniker “Phau Tak Fai” (the equivalent of Speedy Gonzales in Cantonese).

“He was one guy who could remain cool no matter how pressured the kitchen was,” recalls Lee.

It was in this tradition that Lee would hone his culinary skills and emerge as one of the first restaurateurs to marry Chinese cooking with French techniques when he opened Lotus, a 12-table diner in Toronto, Canada, in 1987. The restaurant lasted a decade before Lee decamped to Singapore to consult for the Tung Lok Group. He returned to Toronto in 2000.

But in all, Lee would credit serendipity and the spirit of adventure for some of his winning recipes. He shares an anecdote of how he managed to wheedle an authentic green curry recipe from some Thai cooks.

“When my son was just six months old (he is 21 now), my wife and I decided to holiday in Thailand. Being very particular about his food, I had packed his brown rice and seaweed in a box. So when we went out to eat, I had to borrow the restaurant’s kitchen to prepare his food. It was there that I met the cooks, a bunch of ladies who were preparing green curry at that time. When they found out I was a chef, they let me try their green curry and that was how I got this recipe. Today, you will find this recipe in my book Susur: A Culinary Life, co-written by Jacob Richler,” says Lee.

For Lee, cooking is likened to a journey of lifelong learning. He vacuum-packs ginger flowers when he is in Asia, carrying them home in his personal luggage to his Toronto restaurants just so that he can put them in his tamarind sauce. He constantly keeps himself on his toes with tasting menus, inspired by his finds in the marketplace.

“It is all about understanding the process. We articulate our expressions into our cooking. Chefs are a bit like rock stars. We love nothing more than to perform and please people,” concludes Lee.

Chef Susur Lee will be cooking at the Hennessy X.O.’s Appreciation Grows Gastronomy dinner from Oct 31 to Nov 6. For enquiries, call 03-2178 0230 or go to www.hennessyxo.com.my.

Published in The Star, Star 2, 23rd August 2011.