On season two of the Food Network's Chopped Canada, master chef Susur Lee gets to judge other people's culinary creations. The job, he says, requires an open mind and palate – 30-plus years of experience in the business doesn't hurt either. Here, the Father of Fusion shares some secrets to his own success, including why it's never okay to be a poopy face.
Success is knowing when to suck it up
I would say that my best advice to aspiring chefs is: Suck it up! In this generation, many young cooks are inspired by getting well-known very fast and by living on top of their heads rather than in their bodies. They see a show – they see cooks who are on TV and they think, I can do that. There's nothing wrong to have a desire for [celebrity], but skills still need to be practised and [a lot of young people] don't want to take the time to learn the skills, which is repetition, repetition, repetition: Slicing, cutting, pounding, grinding, that kind of stuff. I spent years learning and I'm still mastering my techniques. That doesn't mean going online to see how a certain technique is done. That doesn't amount to the experience of practising and doing it 100 times the same. Consistency is so important. Before you can be creative, you have to be able to be consistent. That's the success of a chef.
Rule with an iron fist and an open heart
In the kitchen and with my staff I think of myself as firm and fair. I'm a bit old-school and a bit new-school at the same time. The old-school part is about being professional: Organization, making sure everything in the kitchen is where it belongs. It's discipline – show up on time, finish what you are supposed to be finishing. They call me a hard-ass, but I say if I can stand on my feet 12, 13 hours a day at my age, you can stand longer. The new-school part is that I always let my staff speak – I am open to their ideas and their feelings. When I was coming up as a chef, that's not how it worked – you listened, you didn't question. In my kitchen, sometimes I am a father and a psychiatrist as much as a master. I'll say, 'Why are you crying?' And they say, 'Chef, I didn't know it was going to be so hard.' It is hard. That's the truth. I always advise that for the first two years of working in this business you should forget about having a relationship. It's very isolating and challenging. And it's great.
Set your own trends
I don't really pay attention to food trends and what other restaurants are doing. I've been following my own style for 20 years. People named me the Father of Fusion – what's fusion? That means you can create anything! I get my inspiration from all over the world. My latest development is seeds – I purée them with herbs. For example, black sesame seed with sesame oil and olive oil and soy sauce, cilantro and a little bit of garlic. You can spread that on whatever you're grilling, you can toss it in salad. It's almost like a pesto, but it's seeds, which is good since a lot of people have nut allergies.
I also get very inspired by seeing people in their own kitchens. I was in China recently. A friend of mine opened a restaurant in Guangzhou. I was in the kitchen and I saw the chef deboning a chicken leg. I have deboned thousands of chicken legs, but I have never seen the technique he was using, so that got me really excited. For the upcoming Winterlicious [food festival in Toronto], I'll be serving a dish that uses that technique.
Fail hard, learn hard
When a project doesn't work out as you'd hoped it would, you just have to put your ego aside and continue to love what you do. You can't say, 'Oh, one restaurant closed so I'm just going to be a poopy face and a baby.' I'm the kind of person who gets bored very fast, which means I like to try new things. You can't expect every experiment to be a success. When I opened Madeline restaurant next to Lee [in Toronto], I was excited about having these two options side but side, but customers didn't like the two places. They wanted to go to Lee, and if it was full, they were frustrated. I think [part of the problem] was that it was a mixed message rather than one clear concept. I realized that and I turned the whole place into Lee, which has been a success. When something fails, you always learn something. That's a huge part of my culture. For me, it's also that I have three kids and I want to show them that failure is part of trying new things.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.