Hong Kong-born Toronto-based Susur Lee holds the record for the highest score in Top Chef Masters history and made it all the way to the Season 2 finals, where he tied with Rick Moonen for second place a half point behind Marcus Samuelsson. He competed on behalf of Andre Agassi's Foundation for Education.
Are you in Toronto right now or in New York?
No, I am in Montreal. I'm watching this Grand Prix. My friends felt the need to go so I thought I'd meet them.
Did you have a little viewing party last night?
No, I didn't! The restaurant in Toronto was so busy and you know, I'm just following what I do every day. My friends would call me—because in Toronto, it takes two weeks to know the results, right?
Oh! It's delayed? They don't show it the same day?
Yeah, they don't show it the same day. So people watch it online, they call me the next day. But no, it was just another normal night for me.
Have you watched any of the episodes at all?
You know, one night, I finished really late at work, I went home and suddenly the show was on. It was the show with the wedding wars—no, the tailgate party—and I recognized it. You know, I haven't seen too many shows at all because it was a mission; it was a show, and it's done and it's over and I know the result. I'm in my daily life and just went back to the routine. But just focusing on people who watch the show and are coming to the restaurant, making sure that they get a good experience in the restaurant. So watching the show, I must say, that's the LAST thing to see.
So I did watch one episode fully, the tailgate party, and you know it's just—there are so many little things that television can do, it's amazing.
Have you had a lot of people come into the restaurant as a result of the show?
Oh, it's like day and night. There was such a great, you know—people who watch the show coming to the restaurant, trying out the food. You know, for example, in Toronto, people are driving up from Buffalo, going across the border to Toronto. And then people who come down to do business, go to conferences. And you know some people actually have their suitcases after their conferences, they go straight to the restaurant.
So it was so great to see that; right away, you take pictures. There are just so many great positive energy—love it. And you know, "What'd you do? What happened?" every day; of course everybody want to find out what happened, right? So I said, "Well, I signed a contract! Very thick! Number one. Number two: I don't have a good lawyer either!"
Did you know you were the fan favorite?
Yeah, Bravo does a voting thing. They vote every episode—who do you think should win, bla bla bla—and you were like landslide the fan favorite, 47% of everyone who voted was like, "No, Susur should win."
Oh! Thank you! You know, that makes me feel really good. I mean, it's important to have fans, right? Those are the people that really sit back and watch you and follow you. Oh, that is so great! It's gonna give me more business! Perfect.
Your fans are actually pretty hardcore. I liveblogged the show last night, we put a post up immediately, and all of our comments are basically like, "I don't know what happened! I was for Susur! He shoulda won! He's my guy!" They were upset. They wanted you to win.
So they were pissed off that I lost!
Oh, they were pissed off. I thought you would appreciate that.
Well, just tell them that if they invited me to go back, I would say yes ANYTIME—no matter where I am, anywhere in the world, I'd be there. Tell them that. Because I LOVED it.
Did you have a good time doing the show?
I did. You know, it feels like—for me, I gather my thoughts, end of the challenge. I said to myself, It's like when you are a little kid, when your parents bought you Lego, and you're getting so frustrated to try to put it together. And then when you become a teenager, and you learn life experience, and getting older, and you just put it together. And then you appreciate it. So that's the feeling that I get being a chef—such things that I have learned, such things that I have paid dues on, and then suddenly I have to repeat that history again. It's perfect. I love it.
I treasure every single drop of sweat of that challenge. Absolutely.
What made you decide to do the show?
You know, last time when I did the show—the challenge show, Iron Chef, right? And I always loved that edge, that feeling of—spontaneous, you know? In the moment? And that's what I do in my cooking. Always love the fact that, you know—figure out what culture, where I am. What situation, that I can perform something—something that I can challenge myself and make something beautiful. And give myself a test, right? Always have that kind of urge.
And because, you know, there are times that people invited me to go to other part of the world and cook. And you send them the order list, and sometimes when you arrive, it's like, "Oh my god. This is not what I ordered." "Oh sorry, we don't have that product." So you have to rethink ALL this strategy.
I'll tell you one really favorite story: I was in Israel, and the group of chefs was Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud and myself, and Nobu and Allen Susser. And we were cooking in Israel, and I asked them to order me quail legs. And it came all frozen and all freezer burned. I had to perform for almost three hundred people that night. So all the great chefs—we are cooking together, and suddenly they look at me. I remember Daniel always makes that joke: "Susur, you have to think you're magic!" So he looks at me and is like, "Oh my god, Susur, this is crazy. What're you gonna do?" Rethink the whole dish, and use whatever they have in the fridge to come up with another dish.
So I always have those kinds of great experiences. And when they ask me to do Iron Chef, Top Chef Masters—YES. Bring it on. I love to do that. So if they ask me again: definitely.
So one of my favorite things about you being on the show is you telling these amazing hilarious stories about your family, like when your wife got pregnant and wanted to get married and you said "No."—then when she got pregnant again and you wanted to get married, she said, "Fuck you!"
They were so funny, and I'm hoping they do a section on the Top Chef Masters DVD that's just your family stories, 'cause they were so great. You don't seem like a very reserved guy, but you're very careful about what you do, so what made you decide to share such personal stories on the show?
Well, you know what, I think that those are the truths, and those are the moments that I'll always remember, and of course when they ask you a question—how you become a chef, how is your family involved in it, how you become a father, how you become a great chef, how you train your staff. So those stories, they come very naturally, involving how was I brought up, how is my relationship, how I bring up my family. So it's something that comes up naturally; it's something that's always in my mind.
You know, being a chef, starting my career; having two kids in the beginning and also a career is really tough. So: a lot of struggling, a lot of funny stories—a lot of really NOT funny stories. But we went through it. My children growing up, they loved to hear the stories. They want to know what happened. So I think those things I really treasure.
You're such a good storyteller and you have such great stories; you have a cookbook, but would you ever consider writing a memoir?
Well, my cookbook is pretty much a biography. If you ask me: three years ago up till now, have other things happened? A lot of amazing things happened. So yes, life is still continuing with great stories. And I'm planning—thinking about it. My wife thinks I'm crazy because I'm so busy already. Thinking about writing another food book—and I'm not talking about a cookbook, I'm talking about a FOOD book. What I mean by that is, you know, I should've said my last book should've been called a food book not a cookbook because people say, "It took me three days to get all the ingredients to make this recipe!"
And I said to them, you know, having a book, it's a document of what I do. It's not like you go out and buy a book about architects—it doesn't mean you're gonna go make a building, you know? So that is my new plan. Of course, my next project that I will be opening in five weeks is called Lee Lounge. I want to make really good lounge food because people have really bad—assuming lounge food is like a little deep fry this, a little deep fry that. I want people to feel like they can go to a lounge and also still have dinner. That would be in Toronto. Also the Thompson; they're interested in doing another restaurant in Chicago. That would be my next project.
How often are you at the Shang in New York?
Oh, I go there every—in a month, three times a month. I go there three days to meet with my chef. Food tasting, change menus, working and all that.
So going back to storytelling, a lot of your fellow contestants are active online; Rick Moonen and Tony Mantuano, for example, are pretty active on Twitter. Is that something you would do?
I dont even know what that is! When it comes to technology, I'm such an idiot. You know, my son picked up my phone the other day and said, "Dad, you have a hundred forty messages." On my phone. I didn't even know how to take it out. So sometimes people say, "Susur, you got to get with the program. The world is going, you're going to be so behind." I say, "As long as the food tastes great, as long as the food is imaginative, and I know how to run the restaurant, so far so good! Then I'm very happy." More information—it doesn't mean those messages will make good food. I have to make good food.
So when it comes to that kind of stuff—they are just so beyond me, and I need help. You know, I have to hire people. Or I have an assistant to do all the emails. So when people email, I don't have personal email on susur.com. I'm just staying away—no, not staying away, I just don't have that brain. For technology.
What made you ask that question?
Oh, I'm on Twitter and I post sometimes, and I see what some of your fellow chefs are posting. Rick Moonen actually linked to my liveblog last night, and so that made me wonder why people do it, why people don't. Can I ask you a question? about your hair? Why do you keep it so long?
Well, it suits my features and also, you know, when you have healthy hair? Hair is such a powerful thing, and moving around with the hair, there's so much emotion to it, so much involved. And my mother had really great hair, you know, until she was in her 80s. And she still has very beautiful hair. And I said, I liked my long hair, and it looks great; I want to keep it like that. And people like it!
Would you be surprised to find that you've become a sex symbol after your appearance on Top Chef Masters?
[laughs] Oh, great! That's a very positive thing.
I think something that's very unusual, especially on American TV, is Asian men are generally typecast as being weak or being nerds, and you're on TV and you're very macho, competitive—a very strong man. So going back to food, you consistently got high scores and you even have the highest score ever in an elimination challenge, a 19 1/2. And the final was so close, it was half a point! Did the fact that it was so close upset you, or was it just the whole not winning thing?
No, it does not upset me. No, I mean, in the moment, you say to yourself, "Half a point. Okay. If he had half a point less, I would be winning." But there is no difference—anything less, you still lost. It doesn't matter if you had five points. It does not upset me. I don't look at the points—when you've lost, you've lost. So I did not gauge that as a calculation.
Were you surprised by the results?
No, I wasn't surprised, there, the results. I always say, things are meant to be. So obviously, when you cook, you want to perfect every single little thing. And then after that you say, "You lost by half a point." And then you say to yourself, "Okay, let's go back to what I could have done better. What would make that dish stand out much better? What would be right on the money?" I review that more so than thinking about, "Oh, I just lost."
· Eater Live: Liveblogging the Top Chef Masters Season 2 Finale [~EN~]
· All Susur Lee Coverage on Eater [~EN~]
· The Chefs of Top Chef Masters Season 2: A Field Guide [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Coverage on Eater [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Exit Interviews on Eater [~EN~]