After growing up in the restaurant biz, legendary chef Susur Lee’s two eldest sons are ready to take off the training wheels with Bent, opening this month on Dundas West. We caught up with Levi, 22, and Kai, 20, at their Bloor West loft to discuss the demands of coming from a culinary dynasty, and why neither of them will be sporting a ponytail anytime soon.
What made you decide it was time to break out and start your own spot?
Levi: It’s something we have always wanted to do. We came on board at Lee long after it had been open, so both of us wanted to experience what it’s like to open a restaurant basically from the ground up—to be part of every little decision.
Kai: And then when we found the space, we knew it was the right time. There’s a lot going on in that neighbourhood, so it seemed like a good fit.
Bent will be sort of the definition of a family restaurant, with your mom doing the design and your dad overseeing the menu. What kind of advice did they have for you?
K: My dad is really obsessed with flow, what he calls the feng shui of the kitchen and the whole space—where the pastry station is, where the raw bar is. My mom and her business partner came up with the design, so her ideas are everywhere.
How would you describe the vibe?
K: We’re definitely going for casual and eclectic. I don’t want to give away too much. My mom has always been really into collecting—you know, trinkets and charms. When we were younger, she’d be on eBay trying to get a complete set of the Pokémon cards, even though we didn’t want them. That stuff will all be on display.
I know your dad has said that he really wants you guys to take ownership of the new restaurant, but I imagine there must also be a certain degree of backseat driving.
L: My dad has very strong opinions and, of course, a lot of experience. So we tend to put a lot of trust in his ideas. If we have a certain vision, but he feels really strongly about going in another direction, we will usually follow his advice. It works both ways, though. In the last few years, he’s started to listen to us more, in terms of what we like, since he’s sort of moved away from strict fine dining and is interested in catering to a younger crowd.
Is there anything in particular you guys and your dad have disagreed on?
K: Tons of little things. There was some debate about the logo. For the bar, we’re focusing on a sake-driven wine list. We’re partnering with a local brewery called Izumi and doing our own house blend. My dad had his own thoughts on how it should taste and I had mine. We finally came to a happy medium after about three weeks.
As the bar man, Kai, does your job involve a lot of hangovers?
K: Actually, I don’t really drink. Neither of us do.
K: Of course, I taste things all the time, but I don’t, you know, drink or really go out. Maybe once every two months we’ll go to a bar with our friends, but we don’t get drunk.
L: Working in a restaurant, you are surrounded by so many people. So the last thing I want to do when I’m off is be in more crowds. I usually just go home after work.
K: I just really hate hangovers. Two years ago, we would go out a lot. We weren’t as serious about work then. I do really like going out for dinner with friends. Neither of us really cook much, so we do that quite a bit.
Where do you like to go?
L: We both like our simple places. We’re not into fine dining. We go to Terroni, Noce…
K: Or the Vietnamese place on Ossington.
You mean Golden Turtle?
K: No. That’s the Gweilo spot. That’s Chinese for “white devil,” which is basically just a term for white people. We go to Pho Tien Thanh, just down the street. The two places have been phos for a while—no pun intended.
Are there any local restaurant or bar trends that you guys would be happy to see disappear?
L: Boutique coffee shops. It’s just so over the top at this point. And they’re everywhere.
K: Yeah, like the hand-crafted espresso. That’s really been done. I’d say that what Toronto needs more of is great breakfast places. We have some good ones, but when I was living in Montreal there were so many. Brunch places and greasy spoons.
What will Bent have that isn’t available elsewhere in the city?
L: I’m really excited about the ceviche bar. It’s going to be awesome. I’ve been working on mostly the cold menu with my dad, and Kai has been focused on the hot menu because he doesn’t eat fish.
K: I don’t, but I’m still really excited about the ceviche bar.
Has anyone ever approached you guys about making a reality show? It seems like a no-brainer.
K: Actually, we taped a pilot, but after that we kind of got cold feet, realizing how much of an intrusion it is. The only good shows are the ones where the cameras are on you all the time.
So you weren’t quite ready for Keeping up With the Bent-Lees, then? How often do you guys get together for family dinner?
L: We try to do it every Sunday, which is the only day that we all have off. We went out for dinner yesterday…. Oh, God.
K: I’m not going to name the restaurant. It was a Chinese restaurant. It was the worst meal I’ve ever had in Toronto.
L: Worst meal I’ve ever had in my life! I ordered side vegetables and they brought out a plate of whole, uncooked vegetables. A huge stalk of celery the way it is when you buy it from the store. It was crazy. We didn’t really eat anything. We went to Oyster Boy afterwards.
Okay, now we’re going to play a quick round of “Which brother?” starting with which brother has the hotter temper?
L: Yeah, definitely me. Surprisingly, I’m usually calm on the job as long as I’ve gotten enough exercise, which is a big part of my life. I usually try to give myself about three hours before work to do something physical, whether that’s tennis, yoga, working out with a trainer.
It’s certainly working. Next, which brother is more girl crazy?
K: Well, I have a girlfriend, and I’m crazy about her. Last night was our one-year anniversary. I wanted to go rock climbing, but she didn’t want to so instead we stayed in and watched Breaking Bad.
Which brother takes longer to get ready?
L: I guess it’s me, but only because I can never decide. I’ll get ready and then right before it’s time to leave I’ll want to wear something different.
Which brother is most like dad?
L: Definitely me. We can both be very finicky and anal about little things, and my dad has a bit of a temper as well.
Speaking of Susur, I notice that neither of you is carrying on the ponytail tradition.
L: I had long hair a few years ago.
K: I would do it, but growing it out just takes so long and the in-between is going to look brutal.
Early mornings or late nights?
L: Early mornings.
K: No preference.
Favourite junk food?
L: McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish.
K: Waffles at the Sicilian Café.
Jays or Leafs?
K: I don’t watch sports.
Favourite TV show?
L: I don’t watch much TV.
K: Breaking Bad.
L: Kate Beckinsale.
K: Male: David Beckham. Female: Megan Fox.