The ninth edition of the Wine and Dine Experience of the Montreal High Lights Festival begins tomorrow and runs until March 2.
This year's featured city is Toronto, a choice that hasn't exactly create a buzz in foodie circles the way the New York edition did last year, or Paris has already created for the next. Yet if the Hogtown chefs have even an ounce of the talent and charisma of the festival's honorary chairman, Susur Lee, Montrealers are in for a treat.
Considering the star power of the former chairmen, including Paul Bocuse, Charlie Trotter, Georges Blanc and last year's pick, Daniel Boulud, Lee is in good company - and is certainly as famous as his predecessors. With the high cheekbones, the black pony tail, the delicacy with which he wields a knife, and the ninja stance he takes on the cover of his cookbook, Susur: A Culinary Life (Ten Speed Press, 2005), what's not to like?
Lee's two restaurants, the upscale Susur and the more casual Lee, have been unanimously acclaimed by publications like Gourmet, GQ and Food & Wine, which hailed Lee as one of the "hottest chefs alive." The Globe and Mail restaurant critic Joanna Kates calls Lee "one of the best cooks in North America."
You'd think all this gushing might go to his head. Au contraire. Despite a fierce independent streak (it's not unusual for him to change a dish at the last minute or fly off to Singapore on a whim for inspiration), Lee is soft spoken, friendly and diplomatic. And he's excited to be this year's festival chairman.
"It's a great honour," Lee said in a phone interview from his King St. restaurant last week.
"I love Montreal. I come about once a year to relax and enjoy a change of pace and a different culture. There's always been a 'thing' about Toronto vs. Montreal, but for me it's no different than going to Europe. I think we all share a love of good food."
When the word fusion popped up in the gourmet lexicon in the early '90s, Lee's melding of Asian ingredients and French techniques (and vice versa) was often cited as an example. With the flavours of his native Hong Kong and his French training, Lee wowed diners with dishes like roasted organic Ontario rabbit with Szechwan garlic eggplant sauce and black and sweet rice sausage, or seared salmon crusted with ginger, black peppercorn, spicy mango, and crab compote with carrot lemongrass sauce. He has also garnered the respect of his fellow cooks. Toqu�!'s Normand Laprise considers Lee a rare talent. "He has a real personal style," says Laprise. "When you eat at his restaurant you don't sit there and try to figure out where you saw the food before because you haven't. He's not like anyone else. His style is Chinese in spirit with French basics. Fusion may be in fashion, but he's not following any trends. It's who he is."
Stratford native David Ferguson, chef/owner of Le Jolifou, is another Lee admirer: "When I was a young chef in Toronto, Susur Lee was almost a mythical character, the superstar that we all aspired to be. He put not just Toronto on the map, but Canada as well. He's probably our best-known chef."
Remembering his last High Lights fest appearance in 2005, when he prepared his multi-course tasting menu for sold-out audiences for two evenings at the Beaver Club, Lee described the experience as "Great! I had never cooked in Quebec before and I got a lot of positive feedback showing off my best dishes."
To assure his performance goes as smoothly this year, he's bringing along five of his kitchen crew to prepare his signature tasting menu that begins with the larger meat dishes and winds down with smaller offerings like soup and salad. "It's a Chinese way of eating," says Lee, "and I totally believe in that philosophy."
Time will also be spent researching local ingredients, several of which can already be found on his menu, including Quebec foie gras, mushrooms, and venison, which he considers the best in the world. As for a favourite Montreal restaurant, Lee is partial to the St. Denis St. bistro L'Express where he usually opts for, "a steak tartare or duck confit, with the pickles, a glass of wine, and a lemon tart for dessert."
Having spent time both cooking and dining in Montreal, Lee - when pressed - offers up a few comparisons between the food scene here and in Toronto. "Toronto has many diverse cultures, and a large Asian population, which means there's a demand for unusual produce like kalamanci limes and lotus shoots. As for cuisine, there are great Japanese restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Italian restaurants. In Toronto we dine out that way. We say we're going to eat Indian, or Japanese. We don't identify with one sort of terroir-based cuisine. We're free to do what we want, without any traditions holding us back."
One thing Lee envies in Montreal is the High Lights Festival.
"This is such a great idea. I really hope somebody will start something like it in Toronto." This week he's eager not only to cook here, but to simply hang out, take in a few meals (he's already booked a table at the Douglas Rodriguez event at Raza), and talk shop with his cohorts.
But does he think the T.O. chefs can hold their own on the after-hours scene when local chefs take the visitors out for a taste of Montreal night life? "As long as they're a chef, no matter where they come from, they know how to party."
Adds Laprise: "If I know Susur, he should have no problem keeping up!"
Susur Lee will be cooking Saturday at the Honorary President's Dinner at Ristorante Otto in the W Hotel. The event is sold out.
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