Susur Lee Explores New York’s Culinary Treasures With His Son

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At Shang with chef Susur Lee and his signature Singapore Slaw. Photo: Melissa Hom

When Toronto’s Susur Lee opens Shang next month, the master chef says he will present his interpretation of cuisines developed by “the gypsies of the Chinese world” with Jamaican, Indian, and North American influences: “If you see a French-Chinese movie … the way they shot it, the colors they use … it brings the beauty of Asia, and that would be my food.” He previewed his cooking at a Gourmet event on Monday and plans to price his small, individual, and shareable plates from $10 to $20-something. In Lee's New York Diet this week, the jet-setting chef told us what he eats while he's fine-tuning Shang’s new menu.

Friday, November 14
My breakfast is very routine. Oatmeal for me is like congee because I’m Cantonese. I just cook up the oatmeal like porridge and then I put miso inside, and sometimes I will grind some sesame in it and then I will have a fruit —I had an orange — and a cappuccino, and then I take my spirulina pills, which I have been taking for years.

Lunchtime I was in the kitchen again and I saw chicken broth and I put some macaroni and watercress and a little bit of green onions, some ginger, and coriander in it and I mixed up a soup. It’s like the macaroni-and-cheese macaroni, elbows. I drink water all the time in the kitchen. I don’t drink a lot of juice or any pop, almost none. I play tennis and I sweat a lot, so it’s very important for me to always have bottles of water around. Those are pretty much the two things that I ate because I was busy. Normally if I’m in my kitchen, I will do food tasting — a little here, pick a little vegetable, cut a piece of meat.

Then my son came to town Friday from North Carolina, and he’s my eating partner. The great thing is he talked about “do you think this needs a bit more salt?” Or “do you think too much of this?” I love it. I give him high fives. We developed a taste that’s very similar because he traveled with me a lot. So he wrote down all the things he wanted to go and eat. So he said, “Dad, ‘I want to go and eat shabu-shabu.’ We went to Omen on Thompson Street. It’s a very Kyoto-style restaurant. I like the emotion of culture in a restaurant. I ordered a beer, yes, and after that I ordered shabu-shabu, some sashimi, uni. All the things that I ate, he shared with me. He’s the only person in the family who eats fish. So we ordered some kampachi, also toro. I ate a lot of julienned radish and shiso leaf and fresh grated horseradish and soy sauce and shabu-shabu. I cooked it and added cabbage and made a nice sauce with shiitake mushrooms and some leeks and some honshemeji mushrooms. I was mainly making beef for his girlfriend and him because he cannot find food like that in North Carolina. I ate maybe one or two slices of Kobe beef with miso and sesame paste, some ponzu sauce. After that I ordered a plate of braised vegetable, like winter-style Japanese vegetable: braised daikon, some carrots, burdock root. We didn’t have dessert. We walked home, and that was the night.

Saturday, November 15
Same thing: oatmeal, my spirulina pills, a cappuccino, and I felt like I needed a little protein so I had two five-minute boiled eggs with whole-wheat toast and honey.

My son was still in town, and he says, “Dad, I want to go out and eat. I want to eat more seafood.” So I said, “Okay, let’s go to Balthazar.” We ordered 24 raw oysters with horseradish, all kinds of vinaigrettes, and served with some bread. I ordered a beer, a shrimp cocktail — no, it was prawns. We ordered a beet salad with Stilton cheese and then the niçoise with tuna, pan-fried skate with brown butter, grated hazelnut, and green beans. Then the chef was kind enough to send a few desserts. I had the chocolate. I love that crusty and melty — it’s not completely like a molten chocolate cake, sort of like a very chocolate brownie outside and inside very soft.

For dinner we went to Jean Georges and he cooked us almost eight, nine courses. I enjoyed it very, very much, and so did my son and his girlfriend. In the first course he had caviar and a very soft-cooked egg, in between there was the brioche, and it was very decadent and very rich, very tasty. He sent me some Austrian white wine, very floral, very light, nice with the foie gras. We had a sashimi of fish from Japan that he made with julienned daikon, pickled ginger, very simple, a little Maldon salt — was great quality fish. And then I had the uni with a sort of pumpernickel bread with a bit of jalapeño peppers. Then lobster poached in butter with seaweed. The black-pepper-crusted venison, or bison, I forget — it was a rich meat with sautéed rapini on the top; I liked the bitterness with the peppery taste. Then there was some sashimi of snapper, and they grated some walnuts on top. Then pan-fried sea bass with a purée of cauliflower. Then I had a dessert — it was so extravagant. He made an autumn tasting: apple, squash, pears. And it was very enjoyable. I also had some jellies and a little bit of chocolate. That was like really a big eating day because my son was in town. Normally I don’t eat like this.

Sunday, November 16
I went to this place called Oriental Garden. We ordered so many different dim sum. I love chicken feet. We had pork dumplings. I ordered steamed bok choy with garlic, shrimp dumplings, turnip cake, and also fun noodles — a very white rice noodle with shrimp and a sweet soy juice on the top — pork and scallop dumplings, sautéed sticky rice, and congee. That morning I didn’t eat any oatmeal with miso. After that I came back to the hotel to get ready for the party for Gourmet.

There were quite a few things I had to taste: foie gras and chicken-liver terrine, braised beef juice. We had a sashimi of kampachi with some vegetables and a good sauce, but you need something a little bit more eye-appealing when you’re in a room at night that’s a little bit dark, so I added some wolfberries and grated some ginger. The foie gras with green-onion pancake, I took just a bite. Spice nuts, a little bit like a chew with hazelnut for my marinated duck. I actually didn’t even have dinner. I did some running and drank a lot of water. When I was at Jean Georges, they gave me a lot of wine to drink and I’m not really a drinker, so the next day I was drinking a lot of water.

Monday, November 17
For breakfast I had an omelette with Swiss cheese with a few pieces of bacon glazed with maple syrup from room service, and oatmeal miso and then a cappuccino and my spirulina pills. And then I started working, and breakfast held me until the late evening. Then I made myself the macaroni and broth again with a little bit of vegetables and lots of green onions. That was pretty much it. I was so busy. At the Gourmet party, I go out and talk to friends, but when the food passes by, I don’t even think about eating [the dishes]; they’re for my guests, and I tasted everything already.

[For the guests] the chicken liver with foie gras mousse ball with Peking-style pancake and huckleberry jam was one of the highlights. The bean crumble was great, very nutty, coming from a bean it goes with the garlic shrimp with mustard seed and tomato jam. Of course Daniel Boulud was in the kitchen, [and] Ken Oringer from Clio, Drew Nieporent were all in my kitchen. Ruth Reichl didn’t want to have desserts so everyone was just having drinks: cocktails, Champagne, and all the savory things, which I actually like a lot, because when you have a party and have dessert and go home it just sits on your stomach with all the acid and sugar — it’s very hard to digest.

[For the restaurant] I do my own desserts. It’s important to end a superb meal on the same note. One thing about Chinese culture that I’ve always said is the dessert is not very good. I’ve always loved European, French pastry: good butter, good cream, good chocolate, good caramel, seasonal fruits. You can’t beat it. Those things are so rooted in European culture. If you look at Chinese food, there’s so much sweet content in the food that by the end you’re actually satisfying your craving, but with European food, you have a lot of salt, a lot of bloody things, you have a lot of wine, so by the end, you need something sweet to satisfy your taste buds.

I have one dessert that’s Peking-style banana fritters: red bean with chestnut and I make a purée, and I make a sandwich with a raw, ripe banana and then I make a batter and fry them like a beignet, and serve them with a lemon-caramel sauce with some raspberry coulis. On the menu for sure.

Tuesday, November 18

I did not eat breakfast. As soon as I got back to Toronto, I left with my family and the first thing I had was Vietnamese soup with chicken and beef. I was so craving that dish. I need the broth, and I need the liquid. It was so satisfying.