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.