Top Chef Master Susur Lee is about to embark on a new project in Toronto’s Dundas West area, but this time the fastidious chef is only offering himself in spectral doses, handing over the reins of the business to his sons Kai and Levi Bent-Lee. The eponymously coined Bent is a true family project, with interiors designed by Brenda Bent, the matriarch of the family, a menu built by Susur and a front of house run by the sons. TORO caught up with the Lee brothers as they hurried to put the final pieces together for their new space.
You guys grew up in Toronto, what are some of your all-time favourite restaurants?
Kai: Levi worked at Terroni on Adelaide as a busboy when it first opened and we always ate at the Queen Street location growing up. It’s still a go-to, for sure. We love this Vietnamese spot on Ossington called Tien Thanh which we think is much better than Golden Turtle. Campagnolo, Enoteca Sociale, Nota Bene are obviously all great spots and Playa Cabana, a new midtown Mexican place owned by a friend of ours, is awesome.
What did a meal look like at the Lee Home?
K: Well, we ate out a lot because my father wasn’t home very much when we were growing up. But when he was home and able to cook, meals were always family style, served in the centre of the table. He never plated anything at home. We were always casual.
You’ve obviously both been surrounded by food culture all your lives. Have you ever had the desire to take different career paths altogether?
K: For me, I’ve always been interested in food. We grew up in it. We love eating; love eating out, and we love the restaurant business. So, no, I have never wanted to do anything else. I decided when I was 16 that this was what I was going to do.
Will either of you be operating the back of house in the new restaurant?
Levi: No, we will be operating the front of house together. I’m in charge of operations and Kai oversees the bar. We don’t do back of house. When Kai first started at Lee, he wanted to work in the kitchen and I told him to steer clear. We both have a passion for food and love to travel and taste different cuisines, but I’d worked the kitchen before and I knew what it was like and that it wasn’t a fit for me and it certainly wouldn’t be for Kai.
You sound adamant … is there something I’m missing?
L: Well, it’s a little known fact but Kai is one of the pickiest eaters I’ve ever met. He has a list on his phone that he sends to restaurants. [Laughs] He doesn’t eat any small game or big game meats, he only eats Parmesan and cheddar cheese, he doesn’t eat innards, and he doesn’t eat any seafood. So knowing that, I thought, for him being a chef was out of the question. Unless you’re someone like my father who has an insane amount of passion for creating food then that particular kind of hard work isn’t right. But I wanted to work with Kai and I knew I was going in the direction of front of house so that’s how we ended up here.
What’s the concept behind Bent?
K: Our menu is definitely going to be cocktail focused. I’ve just built the cocktail menu and we’re going to feature six different cocktails as of now. We also have a sake-driven wine list, which is split into small, medium and large bottles. We’ve also paired up with Izumi and are doing our own blend of sake, only sold in-house. Something different we’re doing is sharing style cocktails that will be able to accommodate a party of four. They will be based on the practice of “cold tea” in Chinatown - when liquor is served after hours it gets in served in tea jars, hence the name. The food menu is split into two sections – cold and hot.
Who designed the food menu?
K: My dad designed the menu with a lot of our input. He is the executive chef but his former sous chef from Lee, Brian Gunnis, is the head chef and will oversee the day to day. The restaurant will have a seafood driven raw bar and the hot menu will feature anything from baked pears to braised short ribs, anything Asian fusion style.
Will the predominant flavours be similar to Lee?
L: The food is definitely more casual than Lee’s cuisine. But, my father creates the menu so there will be similar elements. He has distinct trends in his cooking that he will always use. But the idea of opening a new restaurant was because we felt the city needed a new place.
Why did you choose Dundas and Markham as the location?
K: I like it because it’s not too densely populated with bars. Ossington’s fun but frankly it’s becoming uninteresting. There are too many people getting wasted. The restaurants around Dundas are sparse but the ones that sit along the strip are really solid, they all have a lot of thought behind them. You can see the hours and passion on the plates. I like the small and handcrafted quality of the places as well. And most simply, we grew up in the area so it feels right.
Bent is now open at 777 Dundas Street West.