Superstar chef Susur Lee on going into business with Drake

One of Canada’s most innovative restauranteurs on ambition, the importance of collaboration, and taking the right risks

Susur Lee

Susur Lee. (Portrait by Edward Pond)

Susur Lee is one of Canada’s most celebrated chefs—not to mention one of its busiest. Already juggling multiple restaurants, books and TV shows, he recently partnered with Canada’s homegrown hip-hop superstar Drake to open a new hotspot, Fring’s. Lee tells us about the hard lessons he learned in his early years in the kitchen, his hiring philosophy, how to pick the right brand extensions, and what it’s like running a restaurant with Drizzy himself.

You now have six restaurants in Toronto and one in Singapore, plus you are a reality TV judge on Chopped Canada and MasterChef Asia. How do you keep all of the balls in the air?

The secret is about preserving and appreciating good staff. You pay attention, you recognize passion, you try to set a good example—professionalism, compassion, communication. When I was younger, it was my way or the highway. I wanted people to step aside so I could do everything myself. Now I understand the importance of teamwork. I want to make sure that my staff succeed, make good money, can have a family, buy a house. After I became a father, I learned so much about teaching and helping people to understand.

Do you have a strategy for hiring the right team members?

Yesterday, there was a young chap who came in for his first day of work. He said “Chef, I don’t have a uniform.” I said, “I don’t care if you don’t bring your uniform. You bring your heart here, and that’s good enough for me.” I don’t care about the small, little things. If your heart is here, I can teach you the rest.

You get approached with pitches all the time— reality shows, restaurants, branding opportunities. How do you decide which projects to choose?

Sometimes it’s a gut feeling or the brand seems like a good match. I try to choose projects I can learn from, things I have never done before.

OK, let’s talk about the new restaurant Fring’s, which you opened along with your sons, Levi and Kai, as well as Toronto’s very own superhero, Drake. How did that happen?

Drake is my sons’ friend. He’s been to my restaurants, he loves my food, and he’s such a good ambassador for Canada and the Raptors. He always talks about Toronto in his music. He has a song where he says something about my scallop dish.

Seriously? That’s pretty cool.

Yes! We have become friends, and he wanted some place where he can come in. The night of the opening, he was there—he was DJing. It’s got a young vibe, but it’s not just party, party. My sons still want to take care of the guests: good service, good wine list, good cocktails. They’re both in the kitchen now—one is expediting and one is plating. They are really taking ownership, which I love to see.

Were you one of those dads who wanted your sons to be in the family business, or did you want them to pursue interests that are different from yours?

I know the feeling of being pushed, and if somebody pushes me to do something, then I don’t want to do it. My sons grew up in the industry. I would be taking care of them, and we’d be in the kitchen at my restaurant. I’d put a ball of pizza dough on the floor, and they would play with it. I think I did a good job of introducing the positive side of the business, and they know I am very happy and passionate about my work.

What is the best professional wisdom you have offered them?

There’s one line—they always make fun of me for repeating it, but it’s true: Don’t think about what the boss thinks of you; think about what your employees think of you. That’s what matters.

What has Drake brought to the business?

I’m in the food industry, so I’m thinking food, food, food. Drake is [great at coming up with] some of these “cool” things. I’m trying to catch on. For example, I said, “What the hell is Fring’s? What does that mean?”

So what does it mean?

You’ll have to ask Kai. I have to keep that a secret.

I heard it’s Drake’s nickname for Rihanna.

[Laughs] Maybe.

It seems like there are so many more quality restaurant options than, say, 10 years ago. How does that factor in to the success equation?

Variety is so important, more than ever, and cross-cultural cooking. If a chef does European food, they can think about taking inspiration from Middle Eastern or Asian food. Our city is so vibrant, with different cultures. At Lee I have young people who bring in their parents when they visit from India. Everybody is happy because I try to mix the old with the new. People want options, healthier ingredients, more vegetarian.…

You have always been a big proponent of vegetarian cuisine, which is now very trendy. Are food trends something you pay attention to?

Not really. I just do my thing. You can’t compare yourself to other people. Compare yourself to yourself. Pay attention to your work, and stop looking around.

Restaurants remain very risky ventures. What is the main mistake you see people making?

Young chefs are very ambitious, and sometimes they don’t learn the trade long enough. Suddenly [they’ve got one of the] best 10 restaurants in Toronto, but five of them close down in three years. I think there isn’t enough thinking about stability and creating a restaurant that will be here in 10 years. It takes three years just to build a good restaurant!

There has been a lot of discussion about the relationship between social media and food. Specifically. that certain food is created with a mind to the camera as opposed to the palate.

I think it should be both. Food should look good, but it has to taste really damn good. If you’re adding a sprout, there has to be a good reason in terms of taste, not just for looks.

Speaking of style, you have been wearing the man bun for decades. And now they’re everywhere.

Hair is such a personal thing. For me, I feel good the way I look, and I don’t think too much about it.

Just another example of being a trendsetter without even trying.

Thank you. That’s a really great compliment.

Susur Lee’s latest venture, Fring’s, opened in Toronto in November. He has also launched restaurants in New York (Shang) and Washington D.C. (Zentan).