Chef Susur Lee sits stoically at one of the glistening tables in his world-famous restaurant Lee. It is a rare moment of stillness for a man who plays many roles – chef, husband, father.
His seemingly stern face is betrayed by the creases in the corners of his eyes; laugh lines from years of smiling down on his three sons, now grown and finding new ways to make him proud each day.
“The word timeless is a generation continuing what they have been involved with from day one,” he says, “from the time they were little babies.”
His sons Levi, Kai, and Jet were born into the food industry. Since their earliest days, Susur remembers bringing them to the restaurant where they would spread pans on the floor and spend their afternoons playing with pizza dough. It is no surprise then, that his two eldest sons have decided to follow in his footsteps.
Levi and Kai first made waves in Toronto’s fine-dining scene with Frings – a collaboration between the brothers, Susur, and notorious Toronto rapper Drake. They now operate Kid Lee, upscale take-out at one of downtown Toronto’s busiest food courts. Levi has since travelled across Asia gathering inspiration for future culinary ventures. Susur says restaurants in Asia are fast and efficient, two things that he considers key to the modern food industry, and he is happy that Levi is seeking his own creative motivation. “I said to him, inspiration cannot always come from me. It has to come true to your heart.” Susur knows that creativity and discipline hold equally high importance in the food industry and is confident that his sons are thriving in both. “They have their own style and know what they want,” Susur says of his boys, pausing affectionately before adding a second thought, “I would never want them to be me because I cannot be them.”
Susur reflects on one of his favourite memories of his sons – the first time they came to work with him at the restaurant. He says no matter how busy the kitchen got he would always find time to cook for them. “They come into the kitchen saying, ‘Yes Chef!’ Then the next thing you know it’s ‘Dad can you make me something to eat?’” It is this balance, Susur says, that keeps their relationship running smoothly. “They have an understanding and respect of my profession but also understand that I’m their father and I’m supposed to provide for them.”
Raising his three sons was not a solo mission for Susur. Their mother – Brenda Bent – has been there every step of the way, providing a constant support system for the young men and their father. Brenda is an interior decorator who has designed the Bent-Lee family restaurants, with her partner Karen Gable. Her eye for detail and structure gives each restaurant its own unique atmosphere, a reflection of their individualized menus. But Brenda provides much more than just an eye for design. Susur says his wife is the person he turns to when he needs support.
“When I have an issue I go home,” he says. “She helps me see things in a different way; and she does the same for the boys. She’s very helpful.” Susur begins to laugh and says, “It’s almost like we go home for therapy.” Susur says that although he and Brenda have provided a stable foundation for his sons, the young men don’t expect things to come easily. He says partnering with Drake was a great example of this; Levi and Kai don’t assume that involvement with a celebrity means a business will run itself. “People judge you by eating the last plate. It doesn’t matter how many songs you play that night.”
The most difficult aspect of being a restaurateur, explains Susur, is not cooking but working with people. It involves a level of understanding and wisdom that Susur has passed on to his sons through what he calls “the Asian way of respect and business.”
“There is east and west in them,” he says, “I’m very fortunate that way.”
Moving forward, Susur and his sons are focusing on rejuvenation; combining their old-school professionalism with new-school inventiveness to provide a dining experience like no other.
Jay Mandarino, Chief Aficionado & Co-Editor, Canadian Food Aficionado Magazine