The Dish: An Interview With Susur Lee

by WL Author

Humble superstar chef Susur Lee talks about his DC restaurant, his cookbook, and his plans for the future.

By Katie Test

Chef Susur Lee

Chef Susur Lee, of the chic Thomas Circle eat place Zentan, has competed on Iron Chef, written his own cookbook, lived in China, Canada and opened restaurants in New York, Toronto, Singapore and DC. He’s a culinary master, yet completely humble, still finding joy in simple ingredients and unique personal challenges.

Zentan, located in the Donovan House Hotel, is a perfect culmination of Lee’s talents and specialties – a sushi bar, restaurant and cocktail lounge all in one. “I love the business that people have in DC, they all eat with a purpose,” Chef Lee describes about his DC patrons. “They do business for lunch, breakfast, and at dinner they can relax, they are looser.” Lee said he picked DC as a good location because the economy is strong here. “There are also other great chefs here, Jean George [Vongerichten], Jose Andres, I am inspired by DC; I want to create interesting, accessible food for people.”

The sushi bar at Zentan is a unique, it is an extention of the bar itself, and customers can watch the chefs prepare nigiri and maki right before them. “I am open to anything in sushi,” Lee says of his style. “I think of my kids, what they would want to eat, I also want to reflect what is going on in culinary trends.”

Chef Lee’s food is impeccable, and this is because he focuses on texture. “I cook with Asian influence, which focuses on variety and cut – I have long chops, square cuts, I want to create a certain feeling in the mouth, we call it.” His chefs are taught the reasoning behind his food theories, and are coached to focus on cut. “I introduce my idea to my chefs, I want them to understand, so that they are no longer taking orders, they know the reasons.”

This sharing of knowledge is one of the reasons he wrote his cookbook, Susur: A Culinary Life. “I wanted to document my work, for my children, my friends and my brother.” His book is notoriously complicated, and features hard-to-obtain ingredients. Chef Lee explains he didn’t intend for it to be a common how-to cookbook. “You don’t read an architecture book and then build a building,” he explains. Chef Lee intends for his cookbook to be for true foodies, or other chefs to learn from. But never fear, the common cook may also be able to learn from Chef Lee soon, “I’m thinking about other books, maybe more simple books, now.”

If that doesn’t happen, we still have a new concept to look forward to from Chef Lee. He is working on a new project in Toronto. “It will have good food, high quality, good wine, a DJ in the room, it will combine all age groups. I like casual places, you don’t want a place where a fork is coming in on the left and a knife on the right. I don’t like places with too straight chair backs. Restaurants don’t have to be restrictive.”

Lucky for us diners, Zentan, and even Susur Lee himself, are just that – comfortable, casual, yet flawless and delicious. A perfect balance.

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