CHEF Susur Lee, 50, heard his professional calling when he was 14 - in the sizzling of oil in pans, gurgling vats of boiling stock and the roar of fire from open stoves.
'The moment I stepped into a restaurant kitchen, I felt right at home,' says the Toronto-based chef who will be cooking at Hilton Hotel's The Harbour Grill & Oyster Bar from March 3 to 8.
At that time, he was working as a waiter in a restaurant. But he soon became bored and switched to cooking.
'The noise, the chaos, the environment in a restaurant kitchen was exactly like my home where I grew up with four older sisters and an older brother,' he says.
At the recommendation of friends, he left the cafe after a year to work at Gaddi's, the renowned French restaurant in Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel where he honed his Western culinary techniques.
The Hong Kong-born chef moved to Canada in the early 1980s and worked in a few restaurants before opening his own, Lotus, in Toronto in 1987. He soon won praise for his cooking, which blends French cooking with Chinese ingredients and flavours.
Between 1997 and 2000, he worked in Singapore as a consultant for the Tung Lok group, tweaking the menus of its restaurants and opening Club Chinois, a contemporary Chinese restaurant in Orchard Parade Hotel, which received rave reviews.
At the end of the stint, he left for Toronto where he opened Susur, a fine-dining restaurant, followed by the less formal eatery, Lee, next door in 2004. Both outlets serve his signature fusion cuisine.
Married to a Hungarian-English artist and interior designer, Brenda, 50, he has three sons aged 18, 16 and 10.
The tireless chef, who does on average six to seven overseas culinary promotions a year, will open his first restaurant in Manhattan, New York, later this year.
What is the secret to cooking a successful fusion dish?
It's all about going back to the fundamentals so a thorough knowledge and understanding of the cooking methods of Eastern and Western cultures is important.
Also, a good imagination goes a long way. Finally, the ability to blend good Asian and Western soup stocks together.
Is there a dish from your repertoire that you're most proud of?
Yes, my winter melon with roasted wild sable fish, salted duck egg, chorizo and chrysanthemum flowers. I introduced it in my menu last year.
It is an original dish that brings together old and new culinary cultures. Renowned New York chef Daniel Boulud tasted the dish when he visited the restaurant and was very impressed.
What is the most memorable food you've ever tasted?
Traditional Sichuan cooking in Changzhou, China. I was amazed by the variety of techniques and spices used in the cooking and the complex flavours of the dishes.
Where are your favourite eating haunts in Singapore?
Zhou's Kitchen and Garuda Padang Cuisine by the Tung Lok group. I especially like the 'Lao Lao' braised pork at Zhou's Kitchen, which is braised fatty pork paired with fried beancurd skin, tofu, asparagus and quail eggs in a sweet and savoury sauce.
I tried it when I visited Singapore earlier this month. As for Garuda, I love its rustic, simple cooking, especially the beef rendang, which is very flavourful.
What dish do you have a weakness for?
I'm a Cantonese so I can't do without soups. It doesn't have to be fancy. Modest soups cooked using simple ingredients are fine. I just look forward to having something homey and familiar to warm me up.
Is there an eatery in Toronto that you are fond of?
I love the Chinese restaurant Taste of China. They have the best steamed chicken I've ever tasted. The meat is tender and its taste reminds me of the free-range chickens of my childhood.
How have you evolved as a chef over the years?
Having travelled and eaten at many restaurants over the years, I've been exposed to a variety of flavours and cooking techniques, which I've learnt and incorporated into my cooking. Stints as a guest chef in restaurants also encourage me to continue learning from my peers.
What dish is your restaurant famous for?
Rack of lamb loin off the bone, with garlic and onion sauce and glazed vegetables. It marries Western cooking techniques - the lamb loin is roasted - with Asian spices such as black peppercorn. The vibrantly coloured dish is also visually stunning.
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Feb 24 2008.