A dozen years ago, alone in Kyoto, Japan, I visited the fabled Kikunoi for an elaborate tasting at the bar, much of which—to my delight—was prepared by the kaiseki master himself, Yoshihiro Murata (he now holds seven
Michelin stars). Three hours in, he unexpectedly broke the silence, revealed that he spoke a little English, and asked haltingly what I was doing there. I said I was visiting the World Expo at Nagoya with a chef from Canada named Susur Lee.
Murata made no response, just slipped away through the door to the pantry. A few minutes later he was back, holding a large photograph: it showed Murata and a pony-tailed Canadian with their arms around each other's shoulders. “Susur!” he said, beaming.
Younger people of the Instagram generation know chef Lee most readily for his association with Drake, at Fring's, and for his frequent TV appearances—from challenger on Iron Chef America and Top Chef Masters to his current gig on Chopped Canada. But long before all that his fame spread from across the States to Singapore, and even to an isolated, unilingual corner of Japan. Just by virtue of the transcendent originality and quality of what he cooked.
At Lotus and then at Susur, he created something that was all his own: a new sort of fusion that drew on both his Hong Kong and his French training, added something of his impressive appetite for travel, and combined it all into something coherent, uncluttered and exciting. Lamb chops with that Thai-inspired, bright and crackling chilimint chutney. Soy-stained foie gras. Veal tenderloin with creamy uni and slippery yet crisp batonettes of yamaimo. That yin and yang of red and yellow gazpacho. And don't forget those backwards-tasting menus, where the main protein and red wine were delivered up front, and from there you were let down gently, course by lighter course, in a sort of trompe l'estomac that had you eating happily 10 or 12 courses into the night.
What he did back then contributed immeasurably to Canada's culinary reputation. What he does now is an incredible cap on that career. And for that and everything in between, American Express salutes Susur Lee with its Lifetime Achievement Award for 2017.