"You're not just making food; you have to have a social study. I like people, and this is a people business, so it's great."
For a chef affiliated with over 20 restaurants, an endless well of positive press, and major recent appearances on both Top Chef: Masters and Iron Chef competitions, Chef Susur Lee is surprisingly mellow in person. As we sip red wine by a brightly lit window, he brings up Buddhist philosophy and asks how I find spiritual peace in the frantic energy of New York. It's easy to see that Chef Lee truly enjoys the personal aspect of creating food, using it as a tool to connect with other people and cultures. Though he's based out of Toronto and his New York restaurant, Shang, is now closed, Chef Lee will be cooking at the Lucky Rice Festival in May, and we couldn't resist the chance to talk with him.
What experience do you try to create in your restaurants? I love the culture behind food itself; it brings excitement to the food. My goal is to put a dish together that will make an Asian person say "oh, I really love that," and make a European person say "oh, that's really interesting, I also love it." It makes me feel really good to see people of different cultures connecting through my food.
Do you think New Yorkers have an interest in fine Chinese dining in New York? People here like a theater kind of feeling when they go to a restaurant: they like to have things with color, things with vibe—I hear that word a lot, vibe. The food doesn't have to be traditional—it has to have some element of interesting culture—but mostly it just needs to taste good and look good. So there's an element of, "oh that's kind of cool" instead of "oh, what is this traditional snake soup with this chrysanthemum flower on top?"
Is that why you think "fusion" works well for those cuisines? Definitely. Asian-style restaurants are still really in because there's so much room to grow with the flavors; we use a lot of different ingredients that are not really understood in the West.
You consult for dozens of restaurants around the world. How do you frame the restaurant's potential and your personal style as a chef? I need to understand the people and the religious beliefs of the area: if I'm cooking the Middle East I won't be making pork, that's for sure. I need to understand the culture to understand the flavor. I love that challenge: to use their products and then apply my technique and my Asian combinations.
Do you find those different locations liberating or constricting? Oh, I love the social learning aspect to restaurants. When I was younger I always said, "this is what I do, take it or leave it." Now I try to understand generations: how they eat, how they think about their style of eating, what are their taste buds? You're not just making food; you have to have a social study. I like people, and this is a people business, so it's great.
You started in restaurants in Hong Kong when you were fifteen. Is there anything from those early days you find yourself still practicing? I had a chef who was never in an office; he constantly walked around the kitchen. Everyday, he walked around. And I inherited that working style because it's so fitting for me. When I connect with my staff I connect with my plate. If you both feel like you're connected, your food is 100 times better.
On season two of Top Chef you got the highest rating for a plate in the show's history, a nearly perfect 19.5/20. What about cooking about under competition do you enjoy? On a show like that you're suddenly showing the internal: your techniques, what have you learned, what have you mastered, what have you done, and how you can adapt to a situation. And I totally love that. I love that kind of challenge, to fix things that go wrong, to change a situation while a clock ticks. I want to make it work. That's something I always have in me: make it work.
You're back in town for the Lucky Rice Festival. Do you think events like this can change our understanding of Chinese cuisine? The festival is so great because it's a voice to tell people, "try the cuisine of Chinese culture." Sometimes when you make really traditional Chinese food, people don't understand its beauty unless you explain the story behind it.
Is there any chef or cuisine that you gravitate to when you visit New York? You know, more so I like the way New York chefs put words together on menus. For example I was in Shun Lee and he was making this soup: Velvet Chicken Soup with Indian Corn. Just a simple word, "Indian." made me think, "oh, that's really smart." Because people here understand that Indian corn is one of the best kinds of corn in the world so obviously you want to use that word. I find this city is amazing when it comes to words, and I learn so much every time I look at a menu.