Why we love the art we love: Susur Lee on the intersection of food and art
In this series, The Globe and Mail partners with award-winning platform Wondereur to explore the diversity of contemporary art from a completely new perspective.
The Globe and Wondereur will approach radically different minds engaged in culture across the country and around the world. Each month, we will ask them to share with us the work of a contemporary Canadian artist who deeply touches them. This month, Globe Arts editor Jared Bland talks to Susur Lee, the legendary Canadian chef and art enthusiast, about his early days in Toronto’s art scene, Bruce Lee and the work of his chosen artist, Kwest.
WAS THERE ART IN YOUR HOME WHILE YOU GREW UP?
I don’t know if you’d really call it art, but my mother used to bring a plastic altar home – she wanted to be Catholic, but she wasn’t baptized, and she wanted us to be Catholic. We’d kneel on the floor and start praying to this plastic Jesus. We’d look at that and think it was kind of cool. I didn’t know what it was, just that the colour was kind of cool, it was plastic, it’s not a Buddha, which you’d see all over the place. For me, that was the first kind of non-traditional culture thing I experienced, that I paid attention to. Also there were these plastic roses in my house. Six kids in the family, and we all had to chip in to survive – we all worked. My sister would go to a factory and bring home these plastic roses in a dozen parts. She’d say, ‘We take these home, put them together, and bring them back, then you pay us.’ So that was a real encounter, looking at those plastic things. At that time, art wasn’t really supported in Hong Kong. It was a British colony. They wanted you to produce, to work. The only thing that inspired me that was art was Bruce Lee – a martial art.
WHEN YOU FIRST ARRIVED IN TORONTO, YOU WORKED AT A BURGER JOINT, WHICH I’VE HEARD YOU LOVED BECAUSE ARTISTS AND MUSICIANS WOULD COME IN ALL THE TIME. WHAT WAS THE SCENE LIKE?
During the eighties and nineties, there were a lot of frustrated artists. I was culture-shocked, learning about what Canadians are, and here it was just a hub. Everybody wanted to live on Queen Street, everybody wanted to wear an old leather jacket, tight jeans, be a black sheep, wanted to make something of themselves. And it wasn’t really supported by the government – the government didn’t pay attention to them. So a lot of people were very frustrated. Everybody was talking about all these great ideas they had – ‘Come to my booze can! I’ve got some great art hanging!’ – so there was a way in which the community wanted to show it off.
WOULD YOU GO TO GALLERIES?
During that time, so many! There’d be a band playing, a three-piece band in a small bar, and art everywhere. And performance art, on the streets. There was one guy, a chef, he was just the coolest guy – he travelled to India and came back and he had this idea of making chapatis on the street. He was so pissed off because the government wouldn’t let him sell food on the street. There was a peace flame at City Hall always burning, and he would make chapatis on top of that. To demonstrate, you know, that we need culture. People left the country and came back and knew what we were lacking, the things artists who left and came back were really noticing as missing. It was at that time that I got inspired by the idea of really doing what I wanted to do. I already had two cultures behind me, I’d trained in Asia, trained in Europe, and I knew two classic traditions. I felt inspired by the idea of freedom: what I want to do.
DID YOU MAKE A CONNECTION EVEN THEN BETWEEN VISUAL ART AND COOKING?
Oh, very much. I think, more than anything, the concept of being free, doing the things you want to do, was essential. I met my wife, Brenda, during that time– she was one of the artists. Short hair, punky, clothes that didn’t fit, ripped things here, ripped things there, clothes that were all black, army boots. … I was looking at her and thought, ‘That’s cool.’ She knew what she wanted, and other people knew what they wanted.
WAS SHE COOLER THAN YOU?
Way cooler! When we would go out, she’d say, ‘What the hell are you wearing? Eddie Bauer – get rid of that stuff!’ She introduced me to North American cool. But I already had my idea of cool – Asian cool.
BUT ASIAN COOL ISN’T EDDIE BAUER, IS IT?
[Laughs] No! But we’re in North America! That stuff keeps you warm! Brenda and I would talk a lot about design when she had her studio. I never understood what clothing design was until I went to her studio. They had built it themselves, and it made me want to build everything myself. I did the drywall in my own restaurants then.
TELL ME ABOUT KWEST, YOUR CHOSEN ARTIST.
Kwest was introduced to me by my son. He likes Kwest’s work a lot, and told me to check this out. The last time I was at a really big art show was years ago in Germany, called documenta. I appreciated walking around for a few days, and getting inspired in different areas. But with the way my life is right now, I don’t have one artist I’m going to go crazy about. Because, with my way of looking at art, I’m always exploring, looking for something new. So with Kwest, I like the fact that he’s a sculptor, he’s young, I like his colours and his dimensions. He’s expressive. The way he does graffiti is very different from the way he does sculpture, which is very tangible and refined. His graffiti has three dimensions, and his sculpture, he implements nature with wood. He’s become mature in a different variety of forms. I saw it, and Kai told me he was getting him to do some artwork in his new restaurant. I just went and saw it at Fring’s, their new restaurant [which Lee and his sons opened last month with the rapper Drake].
So I keep discovering different artists. I was in Asia – you know how sometimes something triggers you and you get really inspired, you say, ‘Hey, I can use this element in my food!’ There was one guy using Chinese water paint ink to paint these Star Wars works. It was fun, it had cultural exchanges in it, and it was traditional, because of the old technique of painting. I look for that in my food – it has to have roots in an old tradition. So I appreciate that in artwork.
WHAT INSPIRATION HAVE YOU DRAWN IN YOUR FOOD FROM THE WATER PAINTER?
I’m using black ink from a squid, and I’m painting it on my plate in strokes. I saw that and thought, ‘I can use squid ink paint like this.’ I rushed back to Toronto and said to my team, “Let’s do a seafood plate and paint on it!” Those are the little things that are reminders of creativity.