Chef David Lee carves out Canadian cuisine

TORONTO Tue Apr 8, 2008 10:07am EDT

1 of 3. Chef and restaurateur David Lee stands in his restaurant Splendido in Toronto March 25, 2008. The co-owner of Splendido, one of Toronto's most celebrated restaurants, is known for bringing Canada's best offerings to discriminating palates.

Credit: Reuters/ Mike Cassese

TORONTO (Reuters Life!) - Chef David Lee is obsessed with local ingredients. The co-owner of Splendido, one of Toronto's most celebrated restaurants, is known for bringing Canada's best offerings to discriminating palates.

With dishes such as Quebec foie gras sous-vide, butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster and Ontario pulled suckling pig, Lee inspires diners to indulge in what makes Canadian cuisine just that.

A third generation chef, Lee, 37, was born and raised in England, but with a background that combines Chinese, Mauritian and French heritage, the repertoire he draws from is as diverse as the multicultural makeup of his adopted home turf.

In an interview with Reuters, he talks about his inspirations, flavor philosophy and last meal on earth.

Q: Describe your style of cuisine:

A: "I think our philosophy here at Splendido is definitely a food- and ingredient-driven restaurant in the sense of supporting the local farmers. And when I say that, I mean I go and visit the farms and go and see the cattle that I'm serving to my guests. I go and see how they're being treated, how they're being fed, what they put in there, so it's basically from farm to table in essence."

Q: What is Canadian cuisine?

A: "Is it the poutine from Quebec, is it the steamed lobster that they eat in Nova Scotia? I think that Canadian cuisine is basically what I put on my plate. At the end of the day, it's from where I source it. I think it's a very difficult question that I can't answer. It definitely has to be local to be Canadian cuisine. French cuisine is very easy. I can tell you it's very heavy, it's very rich. I can tell you about Chinese cuisine, it could be spicy, they have a lot of provinces in the sense of, is it Szechuan, is it Cantonese? But in terms of Canadian cuisine, it's still happening. I don't think it's happened yet."

Q: Is it a challenge to always source local ingredients for the menu?

A: "Absolutely. There are no qualms about it. For instance, my peas now, I have peas on the menu because I can get them, but it's not local. The peas come from Santa Monica, California. But why wouldn't I offer that to my client? They're fresh, the peas are great. There's only so much butternut squash soup or root vegetables that you can serve. So people are really on the edge to kind of get into spring and once that happens my life becomes so much easier and at the same time it becomes difficult. For instance, the wild ramps. Ramps are Canadian cuisine. It's like a fiddlehead. So the season is very short. It's like two weeks. That's the other problem we have in Canada. Our seasons are so short and it becomes tough."

Q: You favor sous-vide (a French technique using airtight plastic bags placed in hot water) a lot in your cooking. What's your take on it?

A: "I think the application is good as long as you use it in the right direction and not to be stupid about it. You can go overboard ... If I didn't cook the foie gras in the vacuum bag, I would lose flavor and I would lose volume. So the foie gras, if you cook it, it just melts, because it's basically just fat. So what we do is we cook it at a very low temperature and I don't lose that fat. So I still have 100 percent of my foie gras when I finish and I still have 100 percent of the flavor. Shellfish I don't sous-vide. For instance sea scallops would just go pasty. There's a lot of science behind it."

Q: What is your flavor philosophy?

A: As a kid I always loved Bruce Lee and I was always into martial arts but never really did it. I love following techniques. And if you look at Bruce Lee, it was like one, two, three, bang, in the punches there. And I think sometimes with my cooking, it's either a female dish or a male dish. And if it's a male dish, I want big punches. One, two. I want those big, powerful, bold flavors there. And if it's female, for instance lobster is definitely a female dish, so it should be well taken care of, very soft, subtle, light flavors there.

Q: What would be your last meal on earth?

A: "I think it's going to be near the sea. I'm very much in love with the water. I would say it has to be lobster, dipped in butter."

Nova Scotia lobster tail with B.C. sea urchin, lily bulb puree, tamari-lemon broth (Serves 2)

Ingredients:

1 whole 1.5 lb Atlantic lobster

2 pieces sea urchin (preferably in the shell)

2 lily bulbs, trimmed and cleaned

500 ml primary dashi (a cooking stock)

2 tbsp butter

1/4 cup good quality tamari

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

Good quality olive oil to finish

Method:

1. Poach the whole lobster in a court-bouillon for 3-4 minutes. Remove to an ice bath, and once chilled, remove the meat from the shell.

2. Remove the sea urchin from its shell

3. Cook the lily bulb in the dashi until soft, remove to a blender and puree with the butter until smooth.

4. Mix the tamari and lemon juice and reserve.

Assembly:

1. Place a spoonful of the lily bulb puree in the bottom of a bowl.

2. Place half of the lobster tail (at room temperature) on top of the puree.

3. Lay a piece of sea urchin beside the lobster.

4. Spoon some of the tamari-lemon broth over the lobster tail.

5. Finish with a drizzle of the olive oil over the lobster.

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