TORONTO—On a cold, cloudy November afternoon, celebrated chef Susur Lee sat quietly in the back room at Madeline’s, one of two chic restaurants he owns and operates in the fashion district here, pondering over the final details of his boldest menu yet. “The Chinese always say, eating is heavenly,” he said. “That is the way of life for us. It doesn’t have to be glamorous food, but good food.”
For more than two decades, the tall, handsome, ponytailed cook from Hong Kong has been making dishes good enough to lure devout New York gourmands some 500 miles across the Canadian border to try his Chinese-based, French-infused cooking. Now, he said, “I’m going to top it up another level.” Early next month, his much anticipated, 130-seat eatery, Shang, will open at the Thompson hotel on Allen Street, bringing a new spin to an Asian-fusion scene currently dominated by David Chang’s Japanese-style Momofuku joints.
“We’re going to be doing what we call a global Chinese food concept,” said the Thompson’s owner, Jason Pomeranc, Mr. Lee’s partner in the new restaurant, which will occupy the entire second floor of the trendy 22-story inn. “It’s essentially Chinese in character but integrates the progress of Asian food as it went through different areas into Thailand, Vietnam, et cetera.”
Over the past several years, Mr. Pomeranc made multiple pilgrimages to Toronto: simultaneously planning a hotel there and courting Mr. Lee, whom he called “one of the world’s most innovative Asian chefs,” for the Lower East Side project. Nobu owner Drew Nieporent made a similar, albeit unsuccessful pitch more than a decade ago. “It was just not the right time,” said Mr. Lee. “I was younger and I had small children. That was a big factor.” Yet it has long remained his goal to make it to Manhattan. “New York is a mission for me,” he said. “Toronto and Canada gave me a lot of opportunity, but I really fucking worked hard for it.”
MR. LEE, who is almost 50, began his cooking career at age 16 at the Peninsula hotel in Hong Kong. He credited his mother, Madeline, now 87, for sparking much of his interest in food. She was “not a good cook,” the chef wrote in his 2005 book, Susur: A Culinary Life, recalling her special dumplings, “so hard they would chip if you threw them at the wall.” (“She was a good mother,” Mr. Lee assured The Observer.)
AFTER MARRYING Toronto native Marilou Coney, a teacher he met in Hong Kong, the young cook and his new bride took off on a cross-continental culinary expedition, with stops in Southeast Asia, India, Egypt and eventually Europe. In 1980, they settled in her hometown.
In 1983, Ms. Covey died in Korean Airlines Flight 007, shot down by a Soviet fighter jet.
A widower at just 24, Mr. Lee carried on cooking at Toronto’s Peter Pan bistro, where he met his second wife, aspiring fashion designer Brenda Bent. In 1987, at Ms. Bent’s urging, he opened his first restaurant, Lotus, a critical smash that lasted ten years. He consulted in Singapore before zig-zagging back to Toronto and opening eponymous eateries Susur (now Madeline’s) and Lee.
“I am the middle man of the gypsies,” Mr. Lee said in his Cantonese- and Canadian-inflected English, linking his approach to cooking to that of the ancient migratory Chinese people known as Hakka. “Translated into English it means ‘the gypsy of the Chinese.’ They are boat people, they are sailors. Every place they stayed, they would create their own Chinese food. Let’s say they go to India; they would create some dishes with curry that is still Chinese style. … I have captured those dishes and modified them.”