Iron Chef Susur Lee has long been an icon in the culinary world, helming Lee, Luckee, Lee Kitchen and Kid Lee in Toronto and TungLok in Singapore. That’s on top of serving as a celebrity judge on Chopped Canada and Masterchef Asia. With 45 years of culinary experience under his belt, a healthy love of competition, combined with his obvious passion for food, Lee is a perfect choice to step into Kitchen Stadium as an Iron Chef.
We caught up with Iron Chef Susur Lee to chat about falling in love with food as a young boy in Hong Kong, cooking with family and the surprising secret ingredient he wants to see in Kitchen Stadium next season.
Did you always want to be a chef?
No, actually as a kid I wanted to be a Kung Fu master! I studied with a Kung Fu master for years from the time I was a small boy until a teenager. Cooking and kung fu have similar philosophies about mentality and discipline. Being a chef is kind of like being a kung fu master though, it requires agility and thinking on your feet!
Where does your love of food stem from?
I fell in love with food as a young kid, when I’d walk through the markets of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a food city, and southern Cantonese is one of the most important cuisines in the southern part of China. I was really intrigued by all of the smells. My mum wasn’t a great cook so she’d give me a little bit of money and I’d buy myself little bites of food on my way home from school. From the open windows of our home, we could smell the street vendors down on the street, I think this is where I fell in love with food but also developed a deep interest in learning more about food.
How did you realize that cooking could be your career?
I really started in the kitchen as a way to make some money. Hong Kong has always had more restaurants than any city in the world. I started washing woks because I enjoyed the liveliness of the kitchen. I had the drive to move up and I had a deep desire to learn. The hotel kitchens of Hong Kong were very intense. To learn, you had to be observant. No one was taking you under their wing so-to-speak. That’s why I really value my young cooks who want to learn—it’s important to be a strong leader.
How did coming to Canada influence your culinary career?
Canada is such a multicultural place. I felt at home almost immediately. Back home I was exposed to classic French cooking but as a young cook, I didn’t get to travel much. Before coming to Canada my wife at the time and I took a year to travel. We went to France, Italy, the Middle East, and India. When we arrived in Toronto, it was so multicultural, I almost didn’t need to travel. I worked in kitchens with Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Thai, Irish. I really got a global education here. It gave me a hunger to travel even more and really immerse myself in other cultures.
What was it like opening your first restaurant?
Exhausting! I really did everything. I was going to the market every day and I had a new baby. My family and I lived above the restaurant so it was really, truly a 24/7 job. But at the end of the day, it gave me joy and I knew I was building a life for my family.
What’s your favourite dish to make?
Honestly, I love cooking Asian food. It really brings me home. That said, whatever my kids ask me to make I always love, usually because we’ll work together in the kitchen to make it. It means the dish is all that more pleasurable to eat.
Do you have a favourite local ingredient?
I always say garlic is my favorite, but really anything grown in Ontario during its peak season. We grow such great produce here.
You were the second Canadian to enter Kitchen Stadium in 2006, and now you’re breaking ground as one of the Canadian Iron Chefs. Is it a full circle moment for you?
It kind of is, but I don’t really think of it that way. Every day I feel honoured to be able to do what I love and sometimes I get to do that on national TV! I was grateful to be asked as one of the Canadian Iron Chefs. Iit validates how hard I’ve worked.
How does Iron Chef Canada showcase uniquely Canadian cuisine?
I think Canada deserves it’s own food shows, we are a unique country with so many talented people cooking in so many different ways. The secret ingredients and the curve balls are what make it Canadian but you really see it in the dishes that are produced as well. They’re not distinctly Canadian but they have flavours from all around the world… which I think is very Canadian in itself.
How did you prepare for the competition?
I basically lived in the kitchen for a few weeks and cooked with my sous chefs. We’ve worked together for over 10 years but we haven’t cooked together in a while. Jonas (Lee) and Bryan (Kid Lee) and I just experimented, tested and got comfortable with each other again. We brought Kitchen Stadium to us!
What can we expect from the competitors this season?
I am sure they are all accomplished in their own way and they all love to cook. The competition will be tough—I’m really eager to see all of them compete!
How did it feel to be competing again rather than being behind the judging table?
Well, I did compete in the Chopped judges’ episode, where the judges had a choice to judge their peers or compete and I chose to compete. That really gave me that rush again and I loved it! I love being in the heat of the kitchen so I was thrilled when I was approached to be an Iron Chef. I still work in my restaurant kitchen but it just doesn’t compare to the pressure of a competition like Iron Chef Canada. I’ve worked as a chef for 45 years now and I’m still learning and getting opportunities to put my knowledge to use. It’s such a rush!
You’re known for your fusion food. Do you think your culinary style gave you an advantage over the competition?
Perhaps because I am very versatile. I have always felt that “fusion” is a name given to me by others that I didn’t really even like at first, but I accept it now. I am a chef first and my style is just me. I am extremely technical and that’s very French, I am extremely creative and that is Chinese.
How do you create an Iron Chef Canada menu once you’ve found out the secret ingredient?
You have to think very quickly. Having cooked for 45 years myself and 15 with my two sous chefs, we have a lot of tricks in our bag. We began by discussing how the ingredients can fit into what we know. You can’t “re-invent” the wheel on live TV.
Did any of the secret ingredients throw you for a loop?
The curve balls were actually what threw me for a loop the most. With the time constraints, the menu already planned out and the unfamiliarity of the kitchen, it’s a challenge, that’s for sure!
If you could pick one secret ingredient for your fellow iron chefs, what would you choose?
I was recently in Thailand and ate quite a few insects—so maybe insects! They say it’s the food of the future so why not introduce it to the world on the big stage!