When “Big Surprise” Means “No Surprise At All”

Well, it finally happened.
James Chatto

It has indeed.

Susur Lee is going to New York City to open a new restaurant for a tony boutique hotel chain. He’s closing “Susur,” the higher-end of his two eponymous restaurants. and leaving open the more casual “Lee,” for his up-market hipster crowd.

Big surprise.

There are only a handful of Toronto chefs who would make that move, but also make it successful from a business point of view. And none is more likely to succeed than Lee.

His stature extends far outside national, never mind metropolitan, borders. Although he’s greatly admired at home, his American recognition carries considerably more heft from a sheer number’s point of view. There are easily 10 times the industry watchers passing judgment in the U.S., and 10 times more chefs at Lee’s level of skill, most of whom likely covet Lee’s opportunity.

Also, gotta say it: he’s handsome, stylish and exotic. New Yorkers are going to love that, too. But he’s going to deliver. He’s a gifted powerhouse, and we love that he’s ours, if he doesn’t mind me saying so.

One by one, thanks to the media for eliciting comment, Lee’s peers have begun to chime in.

There was a vague sense of sour grapes when Mark McEwan stated the obvious. “It’s a tough town,” he said, but then briskly wished him well. McEwan is still fresh into his gorgeous One experience at the new luxury Hazelton Hotel. With New York City a chef’s mecca, I wouldn’t be surprised if McEwan wishes he, too, could make a run at it, but his hands are full of success here at home.

Claudio Aprile spoke of Lee as an artist, which reveals Aprile’s values about his own work. Art, science, craft, skill, gift. I stay away from this debate. My interest is in the business side of things. Can the chef-owner keep them coming back, covering costs, paying all the bills, growing the business and keep head, heart and life together?

The business side of being a chef is the final frontier for any cook who has ever dreamt of opening his or her own place. The sad and sometimes swift demise of so many sweet spots proves how elusive it is to be a successful restaurateur.

I don’t doubt for a minute that there’s a sweet slice of the Manhattan pie for Lee. He’s clearly up for the challenge, and no one deserves it more.