Chef Susur Lee shares life lessons with grads

Susur Lee

Award-winning Chef Susur Lee accepted his honorary degree from York University by sharing his personal and professional journey as the graduands of the June 20 convocation ceremony prepared to continue the next stage of their own.

Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, J. J. McMurtry, introduced Lee by noting his accomplishments. “Susur Lee embodies the spirit of this University. His tenacity, hard work and ingenuity are all hallmarks of this Faculty as well,” McMurtry said, before Lee was presented with his honorary doctor of laws.

Once Lee reached the podium, he shared his personal journey – one reflective of the direct and indirect paths many graduands are poised to experience themselves as their lives continue after convocation.

Lee began by recounting growing up in Hong Kong with four sisters and a brother. His mother worked long hours and was the primary cook of the house, and while he credits her for instilling in him a strong work ethic, he couldn’t do the same for his passion for food.

“My mother came home very late at night – often late as six or seven o’clock. Then she’d start making dinner and her favorite dishes to make were one pot cooking, so I never liked her cooking. She’s a terrible cook,” Lee joked.

TK, Susur Lee and Chancellor Kathleen Taylor
VP Research and Innovation Amir Asif, Susur Lee and Chancellor Kathleen Taylor

Instead, it was his father’s more refined palette that influenced Lee’s culinary path when his father would bring home delicious and savory takeout food from the streets of their neighborhood. “That was the beginning of learning about taste for me,” Lee said, who can remember even at 12 years old smelling the aromas of street food through his window, and longing to understand the mechanics of why it smelled better than his mother’s cooking. “I got very inspired.”

Lee’s palette and budding abilities would develop further at times when his father would take him to a restaurant, especially out for dim sum, and allow him to order whatever he’d like – such as black bean sauce spare rib. Soon, at age 14, he began his food career as a dishwasher in a Pekinese restaurant, then two years later began an apprenticeship at Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel.

In 1979, Lee immigrated to Canada. He knew a lot about being a chef by then, but not much about his new home. A job at the Toronto Sheraton Hotel quickly introduced him to the country’s diversity, with people in the kitchen from Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, and also Korea and Japan. “They didn’t really talk about food. They talked about politics, their religion, their family and how they wanted to integrate. I learned very fast, what Canada is about in terms of food, in terms of culture, and the integrity of different beliefs,” he said. “I feel so proud to be Canadian.”

Lee opened his first Toronto restaurant, Lotus, in 1987, and ran it for 10 years before moving to Singapore in the late 1990s to become a chief consultant for 35 Chinese restaurants. He noted that a recurring theme in his life is an ambition to always be learning and relearning his craft. His experience in Singapore led him back to Toronto – re-inspired, he opened the restaurant Susa, which would be named one of the world’s best 50 restaurants by Restaurant Magazine. Over the next two decades, he would open several more restaurants, succeed on popular cooking competition shows like Iron Chef and Top Chef, and be named one of the top 10 chefs of the millennium by Food & Wine Magazine.

For all his accomplishments, he assured graduands that he experienced obstacles too. “It might sound like there’s a lot of success, but in my journey I went through a lot of periods of challenges,” he said. He explained that what has given him the strength to push through, and be where he is today, is hard work, astute mentorship and having embraced the freedom to learn and – especially – make mistakes, stressing, “It is part of the journey.” Lee emphasized too, the important connection, relevant to graduands embarking on the next stage of their lives, between what we learn and who we are. “In terms of our skill in terms of our knowledge, once you have it, it means you can express yourself,” he said.

That knowledge should also continually keep expanding. “As a chef of many years, I’m still learning,” he said. When he goes on trips abroad with his family, he’ll take, for example, spices from another country to experiment with them in his kitchen when back home. He pointed also to his recent popularity on TikTok with videos where his son hands him fast food meals and challenges him to turn them into a gourmet meal.

Lee ended his address to the graduands by emphasizing what type of success will matter most in their lives. “It’s not about a nice car or having a job where you make a lot of money. Success is what you achieve,” he said. “That achievement will stay for you forever.”