Top chef Susur Lee and designer Brenda Bent met — surprise, surprise! — at a restaurant. Bent was waiting tables and Lee was helming the kitchen. The talented twosome recently opened Lee Lounge, next to Susur’s famed restaurant Lee. Bent tells us how the couple continues to collaborate, while keeping their romance alive:
How they met
Susur and I met at the Peter Pan restaurant on Queen Street West in 1985. I was studying at Ryerson Polytechnic in the fashion design program and waitressing to pay for rent and tuition. Susur was the chef.
The first date
We went skating at Harbourfront. I’m not sure why Susur chose that location — maybe he thought it was an authentic Canadian thing to do!
Susur used the excuse that he needed to “hold my hand” so that I wouldn’t (or we BOTH would!) fall
down on the ice. We did manage to stay upright, and the rest is history!
We had so many memorable moments that I could write a short novel. We always had a great time, and we were f rom such different worlds. My background was art and fashion, the pop music scene in Toronto, hanging out, partying. Susur was committed to hard work and long hours, learning his trade, juggling two jobs. We had a lot to teach each other.
Oh God. Which one? It happened so many times! And then Susur would get cold feet. Finally, I stopped believing him. It was a bit ridiculous because I didn’t doubt his commitment to me, but he was obviously conflicted about the formalizing process. I finally said, “Call me from City Hall, and I’ll try and come down.”
I suppose that “impromptu” would be the best description. We’re clearly not wedded to tradition. We organized a very small party at Susur’s restaurant, Lotus, for close friends, during the day. That same night, we had dinner for 16 at Le Fenice on King Street West. Now Susur jokes about retaking our vows and throwing a huge wedding party. At least, I think he’s joking.
Levi is 21; Kai is 19; Jet is 13. They are very close, and the older two are very protective of their younger brother. Levi and Kai have decided that they want to follow their father into the restaurant industry, although at the business and managerial end rather than in the kitchen. So they are working with their father now, and I don’t know if I have ever seen Susur happier.
Their lives today
Our lives are very busy, and we’re making daily decisions on a variety of projects. Susur travels a lot. I can hardly keep track of what time zone he’s inhabiting, except when the phone rings at 3 a.m. and I figure he’s in Singapore. I would say we are in the crazy phase, expanding Susur’s restaurant holdings, building a solid base for the kids to take over the “family business,” should they so desire.
Our lives are really intertwined professionally and personally, and I would describe us as equal partners in seeking opportunities to expand the business. But the most important goal for us is ensuring that our children make their way in the world and determine their own career goals, either within the family business or outside it. Our job as parents is to help our kids to make the most of their talents, challenge them to handle responsibility and make thoughtful, informed decisions.
The secret to their success
We have the utmost respect for each other, which doesn’t mean that we agree on all issues, just that we listen without prejudice when we disagree. Compromise is a two- way street. Our business collaborations are often intense, but each of us has a specific expertise, and happily those talents are complementary: our “whole” is greater than the sum of our parts.
Marriage is a tightrope walk. It’s all about keeping your balance, shifting your weight and forgiving your partner when the act collapses.