Champion dads

Susur Lee

Susur Lee is a Chef and restaurateur, who runs several Toronto restaurants and a restaurant in Singapore. His signature style of fusion cuisine is very popular. Born in Hong Kong in 1958, he began cooking in hotels at the age of fourteen and apprenticed in prestigious luxury hotels before coming to Canada in 1978. Here, he worked his way up to the role of executive chef at a number of restaurants before opening his own establishment. Susur has competed on cooking shows such as Iron Chef Canada and also acted as a judge (MasterChef Asia). He is married to Brenda Bent and they have three sons: Levi (32), Kai (30) and Jet (24).

Words from Susur:

My boys, they put me to the test—quite often; they know my weak spots and use gentle humour to nudge me along. We are in a very good space. I certainly feel accepted by them. It’s hard to believe my babies are grown men. All of them now much bigger and taller than me.

I grew up the youngest of six children in a very industrialized part of Hong Kong, a lower-class area. Hong Kong, it’s a city that’s “on” twenty-four hours a day. Everyone is industrious and entrepreneurial—and in our family we were all expected to produce. My parents would bring home boxes of plastic flowers and we’d put them into bouquets and take them back to the factory where they’d pay us ten dollars a dozen.

I have lots of special memories of my dad, a very lovely man, but in my book, too nice. Looking back I can see it was because he was just not that engaged. He failed to inspire me. A little playful from time to time, and he loved to dance. That was one joy we shared: my greatest memories of him are when he would put on a record and we would dance.

My father never challenged me or reached out to me. He was just detached. My impression is that he kept everything inside. I don’t think he had a clue how to handle his feelings.

My father came to Canada only once. I’m so glad he got to see me being a dad, completely invested in my children. He could see I was doing a great job. Although he didn’t say much, I could tell that he was proud of me. No hugs, no compliments, the Chinese don’t do that. But I got squeezes on my shoulder or a pat on my back as he passed by—and those meant a lot to me.

I had some challenging feelings when I was about to become a father for the first time. I was young, and my love was my kitchen. How would I cope? How would I handle being tied down? I wanted freedom. I felt daunted at the idea of responsibility. Right after Levi was born in 1990, I went out and bought the biggest motorcycle. My wife was so mad: “What the @#$% are you doing? Are you crazy?” We were already in the game, Levi had arrived—what was I trying to prove and to whom?

My work was very important to me. It was flourishing in that period. I had so much creativity, so many things I wanted to do, but my wife is tough, she’s very tough. She had a career, too, as a well-known designer in Toronto and she was not giving up her career, so we were both in it, we parented together.

We shared everything, all the duties; anything she could do I did, too. We had no family to lean on around us, we relied on babysitters or we took Levi with us; Brenda took him to the studio or I took him to the restaurant. She’d do the night duty because I needed to be at the market at 6:00 a.m. We were going flat out. But then magic happened. I remember it clearly with Levi. As soon as he got past the boring baby stage and he was interacting with me, I started to feel the love from this little boy. He gave me so much it filled my heart, and I was in love.

I only rode the bike a few times. It was a BMW off-road travelling bike; I had liked the idea of being an explorer. Each time I rode it I kept thinking, This is ridiculous. Then I put it in storage, and there it stayed for twenty-seven years. I sold it only six months ago! Looking back, I can see that this was a symbol of—and a statement I was making about—my freedom. Ultimately, I used my freedom to be with my boys. I wanted to have a strong connection and be a great example to my children. This was the most important job of my life.

People have asked me about raising children with my demanding career. Sure, I was short on time to spend with them, but I made certain when I was with them that I was 100 per cent present, even if I was tired. Of course I learned some tricks: I’d get myself a little nap by playing a game with them. I’d be lying on the couch: “Daddy’s dead for fifteen minutes,” then they would be hysterical if I started snoring.

I would watch other families and sometimes I would get nervous. How do I get my kids to read a book? Play nice? Make friends? I worried that I didn’t know how to parent like other dads. What I am most proud of is they have the life skills and character to live life to its fullest, in the style of their own generation. They’ve got the people skills, the business sense; they are good at making decisions. We talk often and I am proud to say they reach out when they need help or advice. Since I never had that with my dad, it makes me feel I have succeeded with them.

We have a close emotional bond and we are very close physically. There’s a level of intimacy we have achieved by using nicknames for each other. It’s like we have a private family language that brings us closer together. All three boys have them. When someone is really mad, when you use their special name, it’s like a reset button, it brings harmony. It works and it comes very naturally. They do it to me, too! It helps a lot; it breaks a boundary. “Yes, Chef,” they’ll say. It’s tender, intimate, very close.

Food is love. It’s how I show love, cooking for my family. I do it a lot, they can rely on me, but what I love most of all is that they can rely on themselves. I chuckled when my youngest son asked recently, “Is there anything wrong with living with your parents forever?”

Excerpted from “Forty Fathers: Men Talk About Parenting”, with permission from Douglas & McIntyre, 2022.

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