When he wants to get away from it all, celebrity chef Susur Lee of Zentan heads to New Big Wong in Chinatown.
“Normally it takes me two hours to eat lunch there. It’s my little escape from the world” said Lee, dressed in a crisp, short-sleeved chef’s jacket, his signature black tresses pulled back in a tight ponytail. Sitting in a corner booth at Zentan, the chef seemed relaxed despite a recent jet set through New York, Malaysia, and his adopted homeland, Toronto, where he owns two restaurants (he is originally from Hong Kong).
Lee loves Big Wong’s Cantonese food, the cuisine he grew up with, especially the thin-sliced conch with garlic chives and chilies, chicken consommé with tofu and watercress, and steamed frog legs in black bean sauce. He divulged some of his other preferences in our Either/Or questionnaire, including details on his favorite burger creation (it involves McDonald’s fish and beef patties), an early job with a mobster, and his take on DC critics.
When it comes to Thanksgiving, everyone has secret ingredients. There's the spice combo that makes the stuffing just so; that one variety of apple that adds the right touch of tartness to the pie. We asked local chefs to tell us which ingredients they can't do without on Turkey Day.
“Bacon fat. I use it in tartlet shells, either sweet or savory. If you incorporate bacon fat along with the butter it gives a pear, quince, or pumpkin tart—or pie—a really great flavor. Also, whipped goat cheese. I mix it with a little heavy cream and some gelatin and add it to my pumpkin soup. Goat cheese is nice and salty and semicreamy, and has a slight acidity. When you have a pumpkin soup, it creates balance—it’s just a perfect pairing. It adds flavor and depth instead of just putting cream into it. ”
—Michael Harr, executive chef at Food, Wine & Co.
“Cheez Whiz. I use it in broccoli casserole. It makes it creamy, melty, and delicious. And it’s simple: Cheez Whiz, broccoli, and bacon; bake until it’s golden brown. Man, I sound like a redneck.”
—Jonathan Seningen, executive chef at Sax.
Do you taste food with fingers or spoons?
50 percent: spoons.
50 percent: both (“I’m not above sticking my fingers into a thing of mashed potatoes.”)
What’s the dirtiest thing you’ve seen in a local kitchen?
“I went to a Chinese restaurant and one of the cooks had made a bed in the kitchen underneath the table, right by the stove. It had pillows and the works.”
“I saw one of my prep cooks cleaning under her fingers with a paring knife that she was using to cut her vegetables with.”
“I saw a chef put his cigarette out in his stock pot.”
What's your biggest pet peeve when it comes to servers?
Not knowing the menu: “We give them tests, print collaterals, glossaries, and lessons, and then we still get someone who doesn’t bother to study.”
Apathy: “If you’re dumb, I can train you to understand the food at least. If you’re not graceful, you can learn those skills. But if you don’t care about the food and what we’re trying to do, you can get out.”
Breaking out the phone: “Using cell phones and iPhones in the corner on the job. You think that no one sees you? You’ll be fired right away.”
Most overhyped chef?
Michel Richard (Citronelle, Central, Michel): “He doesn’t cook in his kitchen. He’s like a brand. Gucci is for clothes; Richard is for restaurants.”
Barton Seaver: “For a chef without a restaurant, I’ve never seen someone get so much publicity.”
Bryan Voltaggio (Volt): “He wouldn’t be on the list of James Beard nominations without Top Chef.”
What is the best restaurant in Washington?
Palena, Obelisk, CityZen, and Komi got the most votes, with Dukem and 2 Amys close behind.
Most overrated restaurant?
CityZen, Komi, and Birch & Barley (“My wife and I left there hungry and went to eat burgers”) got the most smacks.
Most underrated restaurant?
Palena (“There aren’t enough superlatives in the universe for it”), Kaz Sushi Bistro, and the Oval Room.
Which chef is hardest to work for?
Jeff Buben (Vidalia, Bistro Bis): “If anyone worked for Buben, I automatically hire them.”
Michel Richard: “You can only work for him if you’re French.”
Which chef is best to work for?
Ris Lacoste (Ris): “The sweetest woman.”
Robert Wiedmaier (Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck, Mussel Bar, Brabo): “As challenging as he might be, he rewards people who do well for him.”
What ingredient are you embarrassed to have in your kitchen?
“Velveeta. It’s an upgraded version of Cheez Whiz.”
“We get a fish called swai for banquets. It tastes good fried, but the quality is s--- and it’s dirt cheap.”
Your biggest vice?
“Whiskey and women.”
“Pasta at midnight.”
“Watching Ultimate Fighting Championship."
What’s the first thing you do after leaving the kitchen?
“A shot of Jameson, no question. Jameson loves the food industry.”
“Go get a cup of oolong green tea from Starbucks in Chevy Chase.”
“A bath with salts to relax my legs.”
What's your take on food bloggers?
“What they need to start doing is to stop calling them 'reviews.' One person gave a review of my place on Don Rockwell. We were serving foie gras, and the person said they didn’t 'get it' because they’d only had cold foie gras. I don’t think you’re qualified to write a review if you’ve never had hot foie gras before.”
“Some people go off on things that are really immaterial. Like, that lady back there managing six burners and two fryers—why doesn’t she smile when I look at her? Does Eli Manning get the ball from the center, turn around before he makes a throw, and smile at you?”
“The only ones restaurants should be reading are on OpenTable, because they’re real guests and it’s a teaching tool for the staff.”