Susur Lee is Toronto’s most celebrated chef. With three restaurants in the downtown core, and one overseas in Singapore, one can assume fifty-five-year-old Lee has figured out the recipe for business success. I sat down with Lee at his newest restaurant Bent, which is helmed by his two eldest sons, to dish about living to ninety, why asians don’t age, and tattoo sleeves–with just a dash of food talk thrown in, for good measure.
HELEN: The restaurant business is considered to be one of the most stressful industries in the world. How do you keep looking so ageless?
SUSUR: [laughs] I think I look like Yoda! You know, my 91-year-old father passed away last month, and one of the lessons I learned him and my mother is that if you are healthy, you can have all you want in life. My mother, who is almost 90 now, encouraged me to always eat healthfully (depression makes you eat too much sugar) and be sporty (I went to Kung Fu school). Yes this is a stressful business, but exercise maintains your high spirits. I try to do yoga or workout before work, and I tell my sons, now, to workout for work. I am also very calculated with what I eat; Lately I’m eating a little too much starch.
HELEN: I notice that the menu here at Bent is very seafood-centric. Seafood is touted in North America for being a powerful anti-aging food, but it’s always been a big part of the Eastern diet. What are your thoughts on that?
SUSUR: Back in Hong Kong, we ate seafood 3-4 times a week, at least. It’s light and filling, and is one of the best sources of protein and healthy omega-3s.
HELEN: Where do you think the saying “Asians never age” come from?
SUSUR: [laughs] I think its because we are a very reserved culture. We don’t use our expressions as much as Europeans—they laugh and get angry every day—whereas Chinese people always look serious. It’s not because we are always serious, it’s our “thinking face.” We are focused and concentrating!
HELEN: Since your sons are managing Bent, do you have more time for yourself these days?
SUSUR: I am actually working harder than I used to! Because I want to show them all the goodness in this business, I am more focused on working with them closely to instill in them the high standards I’m used to, so they can be proud and excited to go to work.
HELEN: Has your work/life balanced changed with age?
SUSUR: My focus has changed from being surrounded with family and interesting staff. One of main changes is that I don’t react to situations right away. I put on my thinking face. I am more understanding and open-minded these days, and it helps with creativity.
HELEN: What fuels your creativity?
SUSUR: Travel, people, and boredom.
HELEN: What goes on in your head when creating a new dish?
SUSUR: I start by understanding the dish’s originality. I look at the side, the top, the bottom, and make small changes. It doesn’t always have to be new new new.
HELEN: You’re known as a devoted family man, what is your motto for good parenting?
SUSUR: If you have smart parents, your kids are going to be smart. If you have stupid parents, you’re going to have stupid kids. And that has nothing to do with education. You need to set high standards for children on everything, especially food. For example, just the other day my tennis coach told me he was drinking a lot of Coca-Cola and wanted to stop. That made me think about my boys growing up. They don’t drink much cola now—or even alcohol—because I never had it in the house when they were young.
HELEN: Both of your eldest sons have tattoo sleeves. Is this cool with you?
SUSUR: I am totally cool with it! Those are small things. As long they are the same people when I look into their eyes. But if one day they say “I don’t like Chinese”, then I have a problem with that.