Month: October 2019

XO Chats with Susur Lee

Father of 3 // Restauranteur

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

When you’re truly passionate about what you do, it shows. From a young age, Susur Lee has been passionate about food and went against the traditional expectations of his family in order to pursue his love of cooking. Today, Susur is a renowned name in the restaurant scene worldwide. We chatted with him at his restaurant, Lee, about his path to success and his experience being an entrepreneur and a father.

Tell us about how you started your business and when you knew that the food industry was for you.

Coming from a different culture and going into the kitchen – it was not considered a good job at the time. You have to love kitchen culture and you have to love food; it’s a lifestyle. It has to fit to your personality. That was how I began to fall in love. I didn’t have a formal education – but it was an organic love. The taste of things, the smell of things, looking at people cooking on the street, being in the market – these things had a strong impact on me as a child.

Growing up as a Chinese person I was taught that when you want to be a Master Chef, a Master Tailor, a Master of anything – you have to pay your dues. It’s inherent in Asian culture. So I found it was easy for me to have a great relationship with food and with people. It was a natural fit for me. 

Tell us about your first restaurant.

My first restaurant was Lotus almost 30 years ago. It was the first time I ever felt free – free to do whatever I want, to cook whatever I want. It was a beautiful experience, being my own boss. At the same time, I was also creating a family. The restaurant life because even more of a lifestyle and I was lucky enough to share it with my family.

Did you find it was a struggle to balance having your own business and young children?

Yeah it was really tough. At the time, my wife was a designer and she had a beautiful career as an artist. And I was beginning to pursue what I loved to do after all of these years. She gave it up to support me. She made this sacrifice and commitment – but said I had better bring home the bacon!

The struggle was coming to terms with this new reality – as an artist, she was constantly craving creativity. And then there was this new role to play of being a parent.

So we really had to make it work – and it was a lot of work. There were times she would call me at the restaurant and tell me I better come help out and I made sure I went. We both made lots of sacrifices in these first couple years.

So it was good to have flexibility with running your own business and being there for your family?

It was flexible but it was hard because I had one dishwasher, one cook and had to do everything – plumbing, ventilation, building the drywall, buying the groceries. It came very natural to me because I wanted to make sure it was done the way I wanted. But at the same time it was a lot to deal with.

And my kids were really hard to take care of. Levi, my oldest, was really temperamental. My wife used to have her studio and I would walk in and the two kids, Levi and Kai were in the playpen crying while she was trying to create art and do work. So it was very hard. Every Sunday when I closed the restaurant – I tried to take them to the park, take them to the community centre, go swimming. I would have to pretend to have lots of energy. My favourite game was to play the “sleep game” and then when I started to snore they would catch me!

Well you guys did it, and can look back on that phase of life and say you got through it!

I have to say I miss their babyhood. The other day I was walking with my son Kai on the street and saw a friend with their baby in the stroller. It was so cute! I said to Kai – I miss you at that stage and he just laughed at me. I love observing babies – the way they learn and interact with people. I missed a lot of that part because of work. I don’t feel great about that. Kids have a lot of capacity to learn and I wish I could have engaged with them when they were that age because they are so receptive to learning.

When I was able to spend more time with them, they were a bit bigger. I didn’t throw them a book, that’s not my style. I would take them to different restaurants – my education to them was food and the values of Chinese culture.

It sounds like you were able to offer them unique experiences and a different perspective on the world.

Living in Canada allows you to share cultural experiences with your kids. I would take them to Chinatown to buy cheap toys and give out the li-see (lucky red envelopes) on Chinese New Year. I make Chinese soups at home. Those are the things I tried to share with them. They still remember it now and they’ll tell me if I haven’t made soup lately! Or if the red envelopes feel too thin!

When you were coming up in the industry did you have mentors?

My mentorship comes from my mother – she was very hardworking. One day I remember in particular, I was supposed to be home right after lunch but instead I went swimming with a friend. When I finally got home I saw my mother through the window sweating and washing clothes and probably mumbling to herself “Where the hell is that kid?!”. I was so scared!

My mom is not formally educated – but she’s taught me to always be hardworking, always take care of yourself, how to think the right way, eat the right things. My father never said a word – he is a very traditional accountant. So my mother taught me how to be independent. She always told me to rely on myself trust myself and also not to be afraid and to just go for it. These are the things my mother taught me and what I try to inspire in my kids. 

Do you consider yourself a mentor?

My head chef at Lee started when he was 19. He is like a professional son to me so I share every detail with him – how to handle staff, how to organize a party, how to engage with your family and everything about food. But also he sees me as an example – you don’t want to see your Head Chef as a drunk or not successful. I try to mentor everyone I work with not to be careless, not to waste things, how to be hardworking. You always have to hone your craft – it takes repetition, patience and commitment and time. Only after all of that can you be free to express yourself. So I’ll always tell them if they don’t peel or chop something properly, it’s a moment for both of us to learn something. There are many young chefs – 19, 20 years old. Some come from other countries and are focused on just understanding the job so I try to help them integrate into Canadian culture because I’ve been in that same position and it’s not easy. I have one girl who came in about a year ago. She’s worked so hard and worked different stations and has improved so much. She’s now going to George Brown College to further herself and still comes to work after school. So these are the people who are touching my heart.

Being a famous Chef who can make anything he wants to eat – what is your guilty pleasure?

I just discovered one! I was travelling with a friend and in the airport I discovered – Rice Krispie squares! If you put a big block in front of me I could eat the whole thing. I’m not fixated on any one thing when it comes to savoury because I like to experiment. I do enjoy eating thick potato chips – slowly! And with my front teeth only. I can’t just shove them in, I like to savour them. When you devour them, you can’t taste the seasoning that way.

If you could give yourself advice when you were 20 years old, what would you say?

I don’t think I could give advice. It’s been such a journey. Make an effort – go and do, see and engage, find and get lost. It’s all been a part of making me who I am today.

What are some favourite things you do with your family now?

I cook with them a lot. One of my sons moved to LA so when he comes back once a month, I cook for my kids. I travel with them on food trips – Japan and across Asia. Those are the things we find joy in together. If they’re asking for certain other things they’ll ask my wife but they know these are the things we can enjoy together.

Do you practice self care?

Always. I make sure I eat well and sleep well. I practice yoga 4 times a week. It has changed me for the past 8 years in terms of running a business and how to be engaged. It helps me when I’m upset to think about how do I bring my emotions back in check? How am I making decisions? It’s a part of what I do to feel good and when you feel good, you can do good things and get inspired as well as inspire those around me.

When I think of inspiration, I think of my mom. She is 96 years old. She lives in a nursing home in Hong Kong and had to have her leg amputated a few years ago. When I visited her – I saw her working out at the gym. She is just the toughest woman with a great sense of humour. So I get inspiration from her. She is truly amazing. And I want to be able to inspire other people the way she inspires me.

It was a great experience sitting down with Susur to hear his story. We really appreciated his honest thoughts around running his business and having to miss some key moments of his kids’ childhood because it’s not something people readily talk about. But as busy parents, it’s something many of us can relate to and it’s absolutely the struggle of being an entrepreneur who is totally passionate about their craft. It’s also a difficult situation to navigate when both partners have passions they want to pursue and how to build a life around a young family while doing so. A big part of what we do what we do is breaking down those barriers and opening up the conversations to share inspiring stories like Susur’s. Drop by Lee Restaurant for a delicious meal and don’t forget to follow Chef Susur over here on Instagram. 

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XO Chats with Joy McCarthy

Mom to Vienna, 4 // Holistic Nutritionist and Founder of Joyous Health

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

It can be intimidating to meet someone you’ve followed on social media for a while. This wasn’t the case at all with Joy, founder of Joyous Health. She warmly welcomed us into her light-filled home in Toronto and within minutes we felt like we were chatting with an old friend. If you’re not familiar with Joy, she is the Founder of Joyous Health, a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and best-selling author. A trusted nutrition expert, Joy has been featured in hundreds of publications both online and in print, and is a regular health expert on TV. Through her innate drive to inspire others, Joy has created numerous online programs and eBooks under JOYOUS U and is a faculty member at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. Impressive resume aside, we were excited to sit down and chat with Joy – mom to mom, about the highs and lows of entrepreneurship.

Tell us about your business and how it came to life. 

My business was born out of my own healing journey. I battled with hormonal imbalance for many years and it wasn’t until I became my own little guinea pig and did all my own research that I was able to heal my own body. This inspired me to go back to school in my late 20’s and study nutrition. Joyous Health was born in 2009 and it’s been a joyous love affair since!

What advice have you received that really resonated with you?

Know your worth. When I started my business I was struggling with knowing what to charge people and everyone was asking for a discount. My dad gave me a little pep talk and he said “Joy, don’t discount your services just to get business. What you offer has huge value and know your worth”. It’s always stuck with me!

It sounds like your family is very supportive of your entrepreneurial venture.

They were—both of my parents actually became entrepreneurs themselves and my mom has always loved cooking so I must have inherited some of that from her. And my husband, Walker, actually used to have his own personal training studio before we started working together. 

What is your favourite part of your business and why?

Anything to do with creating—recipe development and writing. I also love engaging with the community through social media and meeting them at shows. It fills my heart with joy when people tell me how much one of my cookbooks or guidance from the Joyous Health blog has helped them.

Your business has grown and expanded so much since you’ve started. Tell us about some of the products you’ve developed.

I have a line of organic teas and USDA certified organic natural body care and hair care. It’s important to me to use organic ingredients in all our products to reduce pesticides going in our bodies and the teas are free of any artificial flavouring or colouring ingredients. And body care is really important to me, too – I became more aware of what I was putting on my skin when I was pregnant with Vienna.

Describe your typical day (or if you don’t have one, describe your ideal day!). 

Because no day is ever the same, my ideal day is when I get at least half of the day in my office. I love being in the office and having time to write and recipe create (I have a kitchen in my office). Lately, it’s just felt so hectic (September is always like that) and I’ve felt pulled a million different directions so I’m looking forward to hitting my stride!!

What’s your dinner routine?

I don’t like to spend more than 20 minutes tops making dinner on the average day. We usually go to The Healthy Butcher every few weeks and stock up on protein and freeze it. Then I pick up fresh produce throughout the week and each day I’ll bring something out of the freezer to cook that evening. We eat a lot of fish, like salmon and tons of fresh veggies.

Do you have a ‘guilty pleasure’ food?

I love chocolate! So I’ll have a bit of really dark chocolate each day – but it’s a high quality, pretty pure version so I don’t consider it ‘junky’. And we love pizza, too. So we’ll make our own or eat at Pizza Libretto for a treat. I don’t know if I’d consider those guilty pleasures because they’re kind of just healthier versions of treats that I love. 

Who would be at your fantasy dinner party? 

Lots of funny people because I love to laugh!! So right now it would be Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Ali Wong and of course my husband Walker because he’s really funny!

How do you carve out time for yourself? 

Being home is my happy place and I have everything I love there and everything I need. My people—Vienna and Walker, my super comfy bed, my cozy kitchen, our beautiful harvest table we inherited from Mamabea (Walker’s grandmother) and the comfiest couch ever. I love my home so very much!! So to answer your question, I never overschedule my evenings. They are sacred to me. Weekdays are a different story, haha!

Speaking of your lovely home – we love the artwork you have filling your home!

We inherited a lot of the artwork from Walker’s grandma – it’s so special to be able to include it in our home because it brings that sense of history to our space. 

Where do you see your business in the next few years?

I actually don’t have set goals for the business. The reason is that I want to be able to adapt to the industry which moves so quickly. Ultimately I always want to grow the business and the brand and it would be so amazing to be a New York Times best seller. But also I think it’s important not to grow so fast that you can’t adapt to the growth. 

The most admirable trait (and there are a ton) of Joy’s, for us, is her determination to take her destiny into her own hands. She leveraged a personal health struggle into a full-on health empire where she not only helps herself, but also others. She’s created a joyful space online and in person, where more often than not we tend to encounter negativity. Joy truly lives up to her namesake and we are so happy to be sharing her story. Visit her website here to learn more about Joy, purchase her cookbooks here, and don’t forget to follow her on social media

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XO Chats with Claudia Chavez

Mother of two, Wife // Founder and Owner of Vital Float

Written by Jessica Gedge, Photographed by Joelle Segal

In today’s busy world, many of us consider multi-tasking to be as natural as breathing. But how often do we actually take a moment to slow down and refocus? We were very intrigued when Claudia from Vital Float reached out to us to share her story. We visited the beautiful float centre in the Distillery District in Toronto and learned about Claudia’s journey to entrepreneurship. 

Tell us about your business and how it came to life.

When I first tried floating, it changed my life and my career path. 
Though an engineer by trade, after working for over ten years as a Project Engineer, Sales Manager, and Admission Consultant, I began to struggle with mental exhaustion in the workplace. 

I met a peer who introduced me to floating and the timing was perfect. It was just what I needed. As soon as I tried it for myself and experienced the profound relaxation and benefits to my mental health, I knew that I needed to get involved and introduce more people to floating. I began researching float therapy and its benefits and I became wholeheartedly convinced of how incredible it would be for more people to try it. 

I decided to leave my corporate career to become an entrepreneur. Floating perfectly fit my goal of creating a business in which I would have the ability to help people who have struggled with similar issues to those I faced. 
Floating helped me to realize the need to prioritize wellness in my own life, and also helped me understand that what drives me is not numbers but people. Understanding people’s needs and coming up with the best services and solutions for them is the thing I’m most passionate about.

When I tried floating, I realized that, as with any other issues with our health, we need to establish a regular practice of prevention to be in control and maintain good health. That realization changed my life forever.

Now here I am with Vital Float Centre in the Distillery District. It’s a small business created out of passion, enthusiasm, and a belief that floating as a practice, can truly help the people. My goal is to provide people with an escape from the many demands of modern life, relax their senses, and improve their mental well-being through the healing benefits of floating.

You mentioned that you were able to prioritize your own mental wellbeing – this is critical not just as an individual, but as parents. 

Yes while I was working the corporate life, sometimes I would be travelling for up to 20 days at a time. I’d be missing key moments in my children’s lives and it would cause me stress and guilt. So being able to find a way to be there for the family and recognizing that I needed a change was key. 

What is your favourite part of your business and why?

I love meeting people from all kinds of backgrounds, ages, needs, and I love engaging with my customers, knowing about what they do, and why they come to float. It’s amazing to learn about all the interesting things people do in Toronto and their passion to achieve their goals or change careers to suit their lifestyle and beliefs.

I know for many entrepreneurs managing employees is stressful but I like that part of my job; it feels strange being a boss after so many years of working under others’ directions. I want to be a good boss, someone who cares about my employees, someone who understands that we all have families and that life, not just work, should be a priority while still being responsible for our jobs.

What areas of the business do you want to grow and expand?

We want to focus on helping anyone who could benefit from the recuperative benefits of floating, but we’ve also seen that our athlete clientele and those in the wellness community have really taken to the experience that we offer. So we are working on growing the community around these areas of our business. 

How do you stay organized?

I consider myself a super organized person, I attribute this to my early teens when I was a swimmer back in Colombia, swimming every day from 4pm to 7pm and twice a week from 6am to 7am. I needed to be organized with my time to be able to do homework, attend all the weekend meets, and have time for friends.

Nowadays, my husband makes fun of me because I make lists for everything. It took me a while to use the phone calendar, I still love the desk calendar and I used to have things in different colours in the calendar to separate family and work events. Now I only manage the phone calendar.

I still have a notebook where I have bullet points with the things to do every morning and read my email. Then I make a list after reading all the emails so I can prioritize my activities. For me, answering emails is super important, I think everyone deserves an answer within 24 hrs, including social media direct messages and comments, Google reviews, etc.

I usually leave the admin work to the end of the day (bookkeeping, payroll, orders, inventory, etc), so I concentrate on the day to day operation of the centre, clients, cleaning, and employees first.

Tell us about your family and how you balance being a parent and a business owner.

Work-life balance is the most difficult part of being a business owner. Since Vital Float just opened 5 months ago, I need to be there as much as I can to be sure customers leave the centre happy, with a story to tell, and with the desire to come back.

As a parent you think your kids need you the most when they’re babies or little kids because you need to be there to feed them, play, take care of them when they’re sick, etc, but I’ve learned that when they’re teenagers and young adults they actually need you the most. When they need to talk, it’s usually right away and you need to be there for them. At the same time, you also need to teach them a lot of independence, responsibility, and many other values and skills for life. I want to be there with them and for them.
As a family, we created a sacred space for the four us during dinner time. This is a space where no phones are allowed and we share about our day. We also have our Pizza Friday nights; we make our own pizzas from scratch and the 4 of us spend the evening around the kitchen. Now that my son is in first year of university, things have changed a little bit but we still dedicate a lot of time to our daughter.

I also make sure that the school events are a priority in my calendar. I usually attend all the school events and all the kids’ extra-curricular activities. I schedule my shifts at work around those activities–an entrepreneur privilege.

Do you have a favourite skincare product you can recommend?

Skincare is also part of self care for me, and a way for me to unwind. I like to think of it as something I do no matter what. Sometimes you can get so caught up in your life and in all the things you have to do, but I think that no matter how stressed or rushed I’m feeling, I can always find time to start and end my day with a good skincare routine. In those 5-20 minutes during my routine, I just focus on myself and my health, blocking out all the worries and tasks of life.

Recently I became allergic to traditional skincare products and make up, so I needed to make a change and I found Wildcraft products. They’re local, made in Toronto by a fantastic woman. The products are natural, amazing, and affordable. I decided that I wanted to carry Wildcraft in Vital Float and we have the products for the customers to use after their float session and as merchandise for sale.

What is your go-to dinner recipe?

I am Colombian, we came to Canada 15 years ago and we still cook and eat a lot of Colombian food and treats. For me, Arepa is the go-to dinner. It’s a type of food made of ground white corn dough; the dough is formed into a patty and then grilled, and you can add to the top anything you want, butter and cheese, chicken, pulled pork, avocado, tuna, etc. Anything you can imagine can go on top of an Arepa. It’s an easy, quick, and healthy dinner.

Recipe for Arepa
1 cup warm water
1 cup pre-cooked white corn meal (such as P.A.N.®)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

  1. Mix water, corn meal, mozzarella cheese, butter, and salt together in a large bowl. Knead until mixed well and the dough has a soft consistency. Form balls the size of a medium orange and place them between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Flatten with a rolling pin to your desired thickness.
  2. Cut the dough into circles. Remove the plastic wrap and remove excess dough.
  3. Coat a griddle with cooking spray and heat to medium-high. Add arepas and grill until golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. Serve immediately.

Claudia’s welcoming personality and business background mean that despite only have been open for five months, Vital Float has become a core part of the local community. We are so inspired by her story of taking a big plunge with her career and shifting focus to a business that prioritized her own mental wellbeing as well as that of others. To learn more about floating and to book your next float, click here. Follow along on Instagram over here.

And don’t forget to enter the contest below for your chance to WIN one of two pairs of passes for complimentary floats at Vital Float! Please note, each winner will receive a pair of complimentary floats for you and a friend to be booked at the same time.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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