Celebrity Chef Susur Lee on the five senses in the kitchen

Canada-based Celebrity Chef Susur Lee is well-known for his Chinese fusion dishes which marry flavours from the East and the West. Chef Lee has three restaurants in Toronto under his name: “Lee”, “Bent” and “Luckee”.

Here in Singapore, Chef Lee helms TungLok Heen at Hotel Michael in Resorts World Sentosa.

Chef Lee is back in Singapore until 21 November 2014. On this trip, he has brought along his Ocean’s Best menu from Toronto and will be conducting a Masterclass too (on Friday, 21 November).

Speaking with a smattering of Cantonese, Chef Lee shared with us about his limited-time menu, the Singapore Slaw and his favourite five senses in the kitchen.

Chef Susur Lee
Chef Susur Lee (Photograph by Jason Finestone)

RWScoop: I saw on your Instagram that you were in Guangzhou a few days ago. There was a photo of you on a boat, that was a pretty interesting photo.

Chef Susur Lee at the place of origin of Sampan Porridge.
Chef Susur Lee at the place of origin of Sampan Porridge.

That place was the origin of Tingzai Porridge (Sampan porridge). I was eating it and I thought, “The Tingzai Porridge has changed.” The bowl I had was very good but the ingredients have gotten lesser and lesser ([over the years).

The only thing was, I was on the boat eating it, and then the smell from the river [waves hands to simulate a breeze]. I had to go like this [pinches his nose] and the cook asked, “What’s wrong with the congee.” I said “No, no, no.” [shakes his head]

When it comes to food, you have to be open minded. Sometimes the local dishes can be very rustic. As a chef, you have to be open minded and appreciate the culture. You can’t just say, “Oh, this is not my style of food and I have to eat very sophisticated food.” Culture and food come together. It’s an education and I still have so much to learn about food.

How often do you come to Singapore?

Sometimes it can be quite often. This is my second trip here this year; I was last here in January. I used to live here. I’ve learned a lot about Chinese dining here.


I’m curious about the Singapore Slaw. Could you tell us more about it?

Chef Susur Lee's famous Singapore Slaw
Chef Susur Lee’s famous Singapore Slaw

Image credit

Oh, the Singapore Slaw. It was a hit in North America. People always come to my restaurant and tell me, “I dream about the Singapore Slaw.”

When I lived here about 17 years ago, I learnt how to make the lohei (yusheng) in a Chinese restaurant. If you look at the lohei, it has about 13 to 15 ingredients. I have 19 ingredients in the Singapore Slaw. It also has all kinds of herbs, I grow my own herbs in a cultivator so in the winter so I can have herbs for the salad.

People love that salad. You know who really loves that salad? A lot of Asian customers do–Indian, Middle Eastern and Chinese people. They love that dish because it’s vegan and really healthy with all sorts of proteins and vegetables.

Of course I also put yushang (raw fish) raw tuna and all that. People really love it.

You should bring the Singapore Slaw here.

That’s a good idea. We could do a promotion just for that: “RETURN OF THE SINGAPORE SLAW”.

It’s almost like the slaw has gone around the world and come back to Singapore.

Let’s talk about the five senses in the kitchen. Can you tell us what are your favourite sight, sound, smell, taste and touch in the kitchen?

I like to see the emotions of my chefs because if they’re not happy, it’ll affect the food that they prepare. If I see someone who’s not looking well, I’ll pull them aside and ask when happened before it continues any further.

I like to see the energy in the kitchen, how everybody relates to each other. I like to see the cleanliness and kitchen organasation.

When it comes to sound, I like high energy in the kitchen, watching the chefs talking to each other. I like to hear that the ventilation is working, the sound of fans when you open the oven.

I also like the sound when you open the door coming into the kitchen from the restaurant. There’s quietness and then there’s noisiness. It’s very different, like two worlds.

Smell, Taste, Touch
Smell is very important. I’m very sensitive to smell and taste. I can taste and identify things even after they have been cooked for a long time.

When it comes to taste, I can smell food before I taste it and know if it’s good or bad. I can smell sourness of fermentation before tasting. I can see the sauces’ colour to know if they’re still ok. Little things like that.

I touch everything. I poke my fingers in things and feel things. Chef’s fingers are very important. They are like measuring scales. As a chef, you don’t need measuring scales but sometimes young chefs don’t have this ability yet so they have to practise.

Anything that feels dangerous, like fish with pointy scales or bones, I like to touch it. I like to touch the knives to see that they’re sharp.


TungLok Heen

Location: Hotel Michael

Opening hours:
Daily Lunch: 11.30am – 2:30pm (Last order at 2pm)
Daily Dinner: 6.30pm – 10.30pm (Last order at 10pm)

For reservations, call ++65 6884 7888

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