Ring in the New Year with Susur Lee

up! caught up with celebri-chef Susur Lee in his Toronto digs to talk about his inspirations, his fave food destinations and his New Year's traditions.

Dubbed a “culinary genius” by Zagat and anointed as one of the “Ten Chefs of the Millennium” by Food & Wine, Toronto’s Susur Lee will join other A-listers on the silky shores of Grand Cayman this month.

The third annual Cayman Cookout, hosted by chef Eric Ripert, has assembled his brigade of celebri-chefs from bad-boy Anthony Bourdain to Jose Andres, Rachel Allen and, of course, Lee.

Tastings, intimate parties, demos, a gourmet picnic and a Caymanian cocktail party in a massive sandcastle are part of this hedonistic, four-day dine-o-rama.

Chatting with Susur

Recently, I caught up with the 51-year-old Lee in his Toronto digs—whimsical digs that have just expanded to include his latest creation, Lee Lounge, on King Street.

Sitting cross-legged on a faded squashy pink cushion sits the recent yoga convert, he was happy to chat about the little boy from Hong Kong who links his culinary beginnings to the tasty wonton noodles that were ever-so-carefully passed over the gate of their crowded  apartment complex. 

Still ranked as one of his most memorable meals, Lee has sliced, diced and ramped up that dish a dozen ways more than a thousand times within his empire that now spans restos in Toronto, New York, Singapore and Washington (six blocks from Obama Central—a.k.a. The White House).

up! magazine sat down with the ponytailed chef to chat about food, must-haves, trends and travel.

up!: You grew up in a poor family in Hong Kong that loved noodle soup and dumplings but how did that mushroom into a culinary empire?

Lee: I started washing woks in Chinese restaurants at 14 and apprenticed in the kitchen of the famed Peninsula Hotel at 16. I came to Canada in the ‘80s, worked at Le Gavroche Gourmand, the Westbury Hotel and Peter Pan before opening my first restaurant, Lotus, in 1987. I guess I had inspiring teachers along the way who let me experiment—that’s what it’s always been about for me. Experimenting.

up!: When you’re not eating at your own restaurants where do you go?

Lee: One of the things I love about Toronto is the cheap joints. I live near Ossington Avenue where there’s great yoga [Ed note: Yes, he loves the Vinyasa Flow class at Yoga Space] and so many good Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants.

I go to King’s Noodle House for their barbequed pork and I love bowls of pho . . . I don’t even know the names of the Vietnamese places in my neighbourhood, because there’s so many.

I also love a good sandwich and we have a great Portuguese bakery near us that makes fantastic chorizo and havarti sandwiches.

up!: In the ever-burgeoning world of food trends, which one is overdone?

Lee: Tapas bars. No question. It’s an overused concept that doesn’t do a fair job in representing the food of Spain. Plus, lounge food needs an overhaul in this country.

That’s why we expanded our restaurant to include a lounge where you can get more than deep-fried nachos, salty peanuts and beer. Depending on the season you might find Shigoku oysters from B.C., yummy Malaysian appetizers, unforgettable salads served with cool cocktails.

up!: What’s in your fridge at home, right now?

Lee: The staples remain the same. A box of Spirulina (used in soups), a litre of Soy milk, a bottle of white wine and a container of miso. And some of my meals never vary. . . like, I always have oatmeal for breakfast.

up!: Being on the road so frequently, do you have favourite destinations that draw you back?

Lee: Food is always a draw but I keep discovering new places and new dishes and so, right now, my most favourite was my last trip—to Tunisia. I was there to watch my son play tennis but then I discovered its pastries, and this Tunisian spring roll concoction that is fried with a runny orange egg in the middle. It was incredibly tasty.

And I loved all the brined vegetables and the fact that couscous was everywhere. Because of that trip, I now put honey in yoghurt and top off my tagines with that perfect sweet detail.

In Italy, I love eating the rich, old-style of a slowly cooked Osso buco.

In Indonesia I love a really salty gado gado and in parts of the Caribbean I love simple, natural foods like a roti from a market stall. I always buy spices in the Caribbean . . . usually off a blanket at a local market.

up!: Is there a dish on any of your menus that is tied to the New Year?

Lee: In Singapore, the slaw is a celebration dish for the New Year. The salad (piled high with 17 crisp and crunchy veggies) is placed in the middle of the table and everyone takes a turn tossing it.

The tossing means that all bad things will disappear in the New Year. 

Make Susur Lee's Signature Slaw

If you didn't toss in the New Year at one of Lee's restaurants, join him at the Ritz on Grand Cayman from Jan. 13 to Jan. 16. Or make a resolution to assemble all these ingredients and make it for yourself.

Pickled Red Onion

1 red onion

1c rice wine vinegar

1c water

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp black peppercorns

¼ tsp fennel seeds

1 bay leaf

1 sprig thyme

Peel and julienne red onion and set aside in a medium bowl. In small saucepan, bring vinegar and water to a boil. Season with salt, peppercorns, fennel seeds, bay leaf and thyme; continue boiling for another 5 minutes. Pour mixture over onion while hot and let sit for 1 hour.

Salted Apricot Dressing

1c salted apricot (ume) paste

½ c rice wine vinegar

1 tsp mirin

1 tsp Dashi

1 ½ tbsp Onion Oil

3 tbsp sugar

½ tsp fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

¼ tsp sea salt

In blender, combine apricot paste, vinegar, mirin, Dashi, Onion Oil, sugar, ginger, and salt. Puree until smooth.

Singaporean Style Slaw

Serves 4

1 Pickled Red Onion

1 ½ cups Salted Apricot Dressing

2 green onions, both white and green parts, julienned

2 oz rice vermicelli, broken into 3 pieces

1 large English cucumber, julienned

1 large carrot, peeled and julienned

1 small jicama, peeled and julienned

2 large Roma tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and thinly sliced

4 tsp toasted sesame seeds

6 tsp crushed roasted peanuts

4 tsp edible flower petals

4 tsp fennel seedlings

4 tsp purple basil seedlings

4 tsp daikon sprouts

4 tsp fried shallots

Soak green onion in very cold water to keep crisp. Meanwhile, heat large pot of oil. When temperature reaches 400°F, deep fry taro root, half the amount at a time, for 2 minutes until crisp and light gold in color.

Remove slices from oil, place on paper towel, and lightly salt. At same temperature, quickly deep fry vermicelli, half at a time, for 2 seconds, or until they curl. Remove vermicelli from oil, place on paper towel, and lightly salt.

To serve: Remove julienned green onion from bowl and drain. Divide vermicelli equally between 4 plates and arrange green onion, cucumber, carrot, jicama, tomatoes, and pickled red onion around noodles. Top with fried taro root.

Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds and crushed peanuts over each salad. In small bowl, combine edible flower petals, seedlings, sprouts, and fried shallots. Sprinkle flower-sprout-shallot mixture on salad and serve with Salted Apricot Dressing alongside.

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