Hong Kong-born chef Susur Lee created an international restaurant empire over a four-decade career. He's finally brought his brand to Viet Nam in the form of Tung Lok Heen, a luxurious Chinese eatery. Thuy Hang reports.
He first began, more than four decades ago, as a humble apprentice at Hong Kong's famous Peninsula Hotel. Chef Susur Lee turned that experience into a long, celebrated career as a leader in Asian fusion cuisine.
He has created an international restaurant empire, including four restaurants in Toronto and the prestigious TungLok Heen in Singapore. In Food&Wine magazine's 2000 year edition, he was listed as one of the "Ten Chefs of the Millennium".
Lee recently visited Ha Noi to promote the newly opened TungLok Heen, located at the Almaz entertainment and gastronomy centre. He spoke with Viet Nam News about his life enjoying cuisines and cultures from around the world.
What factors helped made you who are today - an internationally recognised star chef?
Alongside a great love for food, it's important to have: first of all, good taste; second, physicality, because you have to be healthy and strong in the kitchen; finally, to be influential with your staff. I think those are important elements of being a celebrity and great chef.
How do you describe yourself when you work in kitchen?
I'm professional. I trained for many years as a professional chef so I have developed my own set of standards. My staff has clear guidance on, and understands what I mean by "standards" and "professional".
I always make the opportunity for my staff to approach and understand me. I influence them and I want them to know that I am the kitchen's leader.
I also have a sense of humour, which sometimes helps my staff release stress when working hard in the kitchen. Besides, I am kind and strong.
You made your fame with Asian fusion cuisine, blending traditional Chinese dishes with classical French techniques. Do you ever think of trying something new, like experiment with other cuisines?
Oh, yes. I love trying food from other cultures and inventing new recipes with ingredients from other countries because there are no boundaries with food. Food is the world, and food is the way we communicate. Sometimes you don't need language to communicate with people from different cultures, the food can take care of that.
I'm sure my cooking creativity will never diminish because the world is so big for me to explore. I'm still exploring.
Whenever I travel to a new place, I always learn about its local food and try to create new recipes with local ingredients. For example, I came up with my signature Singapore Slaw Salad when I was living in Singapore. Now, that I'm here in Ha Noi, I offer a local version of this dish by using Vietnamese ingredients such as yam bean, mango, different kinds of herbs, vegetables and fresh flower petals.
I also realise that I have an incredible ability to adapt myself to new cultures. My style is fusion; my technique is learning the culture.
This is your first visit to Ha Noi. What's your impression of Hanoian food?
I'm very happy to find so many different herbs in Ha Noi that have inspired me, from saw-leaf to fresh mint, from Thai basil to Vietnamese coriander. These herbs can add amazing flavours to the dishes. I decided to bring these herbs to my restaurants in North America so my customers will have a chance to enjoy their aromatic character.
I especially love pho -- a dish that you can eat for any meal, breakfast, lunch or dinner and in any season. It's light but it's also rich. I like the dish so much so I learned how to make the broth -- the most important element of this dish.
Vietnamese food definitely inspires me to invent new recipes.
What ingredients are you most comfortable working with?
I think garlic is my biggest and best ingredients. You can braise them, fry them, eat them raw and you can mince them – it's endless.
I was born in Hong Kong and moved to Canada when I was just 20 years old. My fusion cooking and my taste comes from my birthplace's cuisine, Cantonese style. It has a huge influence in my career.
Do you go to the market everyday yourself?
Yes, I still go to the market and get inspired by things I find there. I maintain this habit whenever I travel to another place.
In one of my restaurants in Toronto, instead of offering a traditional menu we build a tasting menu each day from whatever inspires me at the marketplace that morning.
It is nearly 10 years since you presented your first cookbook – Susur: A Culinary Life. Do you plan to write another one?
I'm planning to write my second book. However, it's still in the planning stages so I can't say anything more about it.
Do you have any culinary idols?
Maybe I have inherited a good taste from my father. For me, my father is my greatest idol. — VNS