Celebrated chef teaches with the belief that he has much to learn
“I’m still learning,” Susur Lee declares at the start of his two-hour talk and cooking demonstration to 50 eager Culinary Arts students hanging on his every word as he assembles Singaporean slaw salad with salted apricot dressing. Lee is a tall, lean 52-year-old who looks 32 thanks to good genetics, yoga, seriously stylish jeans and running shoes, and his iconic black ponytail.
Lee, who is known around the world merely by first name – Susur, meaning “fine sand” in Chinese – has come to Edmonton for five intensely packed days in March as NAIT’s Hokanson Chef in Residence.
He’s arguably Canada’s best-known chef with five restaurants to his name, and legions of fans thanks to a recent turn on Top Chef Masters, where he competed against 21 other famous chefs only to lose the final competition to Marcus Samuelsson by a fraction of a point.
But in the NAIT kitchens, there’s no sign of the ego that usually accompanies a chef of his stature. Instead, he seems more concerned with encouraging students to squeeze every last bit of information out of him while they have his undivided attention.
“I don’t do this very often, so this is your chance,” he prods in his distinctive baritone voice as he deftly slices jicama, carrots, cucumber and pickled onion into perfect julienne strips. “I want to know what’s going on out there with young chefs and what you are thinking, too.”
“What does it mean to be a master?” asks a student, finally getting up the nerve to voice a question.
“That’s a great question,” Lee reassures. “Knowledge is the most important thing. This means you’re very great at all the stations, but that you can also pass this on. That’s what being a master is all about.”
Lee explains how he began his cooking career as a “pot washer” in a Hong Kong hotel kitchen at the age of 14, but shook up the North American culinary scene with his first restaurant, Lotus, in Toronto, earning him the title of the father of fusion for his signature East-West culinary creations.
He is both student and master, passing along what he learns.
Now his main job is to travel and learn about new foods and new cultures, to constantly nourish the creativity at his restaurants, Lee and Lee Lounge in Toronto, Zentan in Washington, D.C., Shang in New York and Chinois by Susur Lee in Singapore. He is both student and master, passing along what he learns to his staff.
Soon students are calling out questions, and Lee banters on with them, asking questions about their career plans, where they’ve travelled, and the places and tastes that inspire them.
At the end of Lee’s master class, a cloud of students forms around him. One by one, Lee gamefully throws an arm around each and smiles until the last cellphone photo is taken.
The next morning, in the kitchens behind Ernest’s dining room, Lee’s demeanour is still relaxed, but definitely less chummy, more serious, more focused.
The task at hand is to serve a three-course lunch designed by Lee to 120 guests, including many Edmonton chefs who have come to experience his culinary genius.
The 40 Culinary Arts students preparing the lunch might be nervous, but Lee sets the tone with his calming vibe as he clearly directs the several teams responsible for the various components.
Mithalee Rawat, a fourth-semester Culinary Arts student is impressed by the amount of “contemporary detail” in each of Lee’s recipes and how well he knows his flavour profiles.
“There’s a lot of marinating, brining and fiddling with 10 different components [within one recipe],” she explains. This is a leap forward in complexity for cooks at her level, but Lee makes sure that each step is done precisely and correctly.
Rawat also appreciated Lee’s lesson in how to extract perfect lobster claw meat, a tricky proposition for a cook of any experience level. “He showed us how to do it in one swift move. The efficiency of that technique will stay with me.”
For three solid hours, Lee never stops moving. He glides around the large prep tables in the kitchens, stopping briefly to give clear, concise instructions on how thick to roll out the puff pastry that will form the base of today’s appetizer at one station, how to reduce the sauce at another. His teams of students work at a steady, but never panicked pace.
“Being a chef is not just about cooking,” he explains, “you have to bring your team along.” Learning to communicate effectively in the kitchen, Lee says, is something he has worked hard at over the years. He leads by example. “You have to be patient, peaceful,” not frantic and flustered, no matter the situation.
“You have to be patient, peaceful.”
And this is one lesson that is hard to miss from the master.
Some of the puff pastry is undercooked, others are too small. He quickly explains to the student in charge exactly what he expects the second-time around and adds a cheery, “Good luck.” Lee’s words of encouragement exude a calm energy. “Looks good. Keep cooking,” he tells a student standing over the bubbling cumin-scented tomato sauce for the main course.
“He is so relaxed, not at all intimidating in the kitchen. Yet he’s so precise,” remarks fourth-semester student Becky Christenson who is marinating the main course’s lamb, peeling chickpeas and tying herb bouquets as a garnish for the lamb.
Out in the dining room, the guests are indeed impressed.
The Mexican-inspired spicy lobster tart with bonito alerts the taste buds that they are in for a uniquely Susurian experience. A perfectly medium-rare rack of lamb with Middle Eastern accents – such as the chickpea purée, sweet and salty olives, and the smoky cumin tomato sauce – reflects an inspiration acquired on a recent trip to Abu Dhabi.
The dessert of an ethereal vanilla panna cotta, with an ultra-sheer, near transparent slice of pineapple draped over raspberries looks like an exotic flower. The passion fruit sauce that completes it leaves the diners speechless.
Andrew Fung (Baking ’98, Cook ’01), executive chef at Blackhawk Golf Course, has come for lunch to meet his culinary idol.
“It’s the details,” Fung says to explain what puts Lee so far ahead of so many other chefs. “He doesn’t take any shortcuts – even in his cookbooks – in his fusion cuisine. Every sauce is made as it should be.”
Fung, also originally from Hong Kong, declares his own East-West cooking creativity has been reignited.
By the end of the week, Edmonton will have left Lee with culinary memories as well. As the judge and coach for a “black box” student cooking competition on the last day, Lee is particularly taken with the ingenious fried candied ginger garnish a student adds to her team’s Cornish game hen dish.
“Wow, this is really good,” he repeats enthusiastically, proving the point again that a master never stops learning.