No one much likes the word “fusion,” but the style of cooking made famous by Susur Lee is as close as Toronto gets to a culinary tradition.
You couldn’t blame Susur Lee if he didn’t want to spend much time cooking. After all, over the past 40 years, the 55-year-old has worked at or opened up restaurants in five cities across two continents. He’s arguably Canada’s best-known chef export, and he regularly appears on the reality-cooking show circuit. Thirty years ago, Lee became celebrated for delicately integrating French technique with bold Asian flavours at his first restaurant, Lotus. Now fusion food pervades Toronto: Smoked meat goes into steamed baos; gochujang accents fried-chicken sandwiches. Even if the term has fallen out of favour, fusion has become our culinary tradition, something that defines the city as much as deep-dish pizza does Chicago. That’s the reason Lee can be seen wearing chefs’ whites in the kitchen of his two-month-old spot, Luckee. He’s working to protect the legacy he founded in this city.
In 1987, Lee opened Lotus, a 12-table restaurant in a house at King and Tecumseth. For 10 years, the chef cooked a tasting menu that changed daily. “It was a feeling of absolute freedom,” he says. “I could use any ingredients I wanted. It was very personal.” Lee wasn’t the only one to blend Asian flavours with European techniques—chefs throughout North America were in the throes of fusion by the early ’90s—but his food was grounded in both his experiences and ethnic makeup. And even as chefs turned away from fusion and towards simple, rustic food, Lee’s cooking didn’t feel out of place. “Toronto diners have always been open-minded,” he says. “With new immigrants coming in, we’ve had access to great ingredients. Fusion cooking was a way for me to introduce these ingredients to a wider audience.”
Fusion food is as old as the Columbian Exchange. No culture’s cooking is immune to evolution—otherwise, without it, there’d be no tomato sauce on pizza or chilis in Kung Pao chicken. When the word “fusion” ran afoul of tastemakers two decades ago, it was because dishes had turned into a muddle of jarring components. “I always had a problem with the term,” says Nick Liu, chef of soon-to-open GwaiLo restaurant, which will serve General Tso sweetbreads and Big Mac–flavoured baos. “There was a lack of understanding the food’s history. Many young Asian chefs train in the French technique, so they’re just creating what’s deep-rooted in them.”
In the past few years, cross-cultural restaurants have flooded the city. Ossington’s OddSeoul offers mini burgers with kimchi hollandaise and squash poutine with Japanese curry. Koreatown’s Barrio Coreano serves tacos stuffed with kalbi beef, while Queen West’s Banh Mi Boys makes Vietnamese meatball subs. Young chefs like Liu—or Craig Wong, who’ll soon open Jamaican-Chinese spot Patois—count their first meals at Lee’s restaurants as formative culinary experiences. The same can be said for Adrian Ravinsky and Dustin Gallagher, co-owner and chef, respectively, of 416 Snack Bar and its new offshoot, People’s Eatery. At both those spots, “each plate is like a trip to a different Toronto neighbourhood,” says Ravinsky. “We want to represent the city’s diversity.”
Despite the fact that it’s an ambitious venture (120 seats) housed in a high-end hotel (the SoHo Metropolitan), Luckee is an important project for Lee. Sure, the menu straddles different countries, but there’s no cheeseburger spring rolls or truffled Japanese beef carpaccio here. The food is staunchly Chinese, featuring regional specialties from Hunan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Szechuan, and Guangdong. Of course, dishes are given modifications and everything’s beautifully plated. There’s Peking-style duck ($18–$38), tricked out with a five-spice torchon of foie gras ($10). The Shanghai ham ($19) is made from prosciutto and braised pork belly, and the char siu beef brisket ($19) is served on edamame beans in a Chinese barbecue sauce.
Lee made his peace with the term fusion long ago, because it gave people a way to classify his cooking. Still, he prefers not to categorize what he does too precisely. “Food is like music: It’s just an articulation of what’s inside,” he says. “Like many chefs working now, I never set out to do fusion food. I was just putting together my training and my culture, and I was lucky that I had such a sophisticated city to serve it to.”
Luckee, 328 Wellington St. W., 416-935-0400.