“Learning to cook after mom died was a baptism of fire”

Lee has dedicated her debut cookbook to the Cantonese food her mother used to cook (Lizzie Mayson/PA)

Lee has dedicated her debut cookbook to the Cantonese food her mother used to cook (Lizzie Mayson/PA)

Things may have exploded for Suzie Lee since winning Best Home Chef in 2020 – she’s presented two cookery shows on BBC NI and is now releasing her debut cookbook – but that doesn’t mean she’s stopped her everyday life.

Still an accountant by trade, Lee says: “If you ever meet me, I’ll always say I’m an accountant who cooks, because that’s my day job. I’m still a chartered accountant, I still have my accounting business – that’s what makes the money. The other stuff, as much as it seems really shiny, doesn’t pay the bills.”

However, Lee, 38, describes winning Best Home Chef as “life-changing”, saying it has “opened so many doors”.

She adds: “Pretty much when I won Best Home Chef I was like OK, I can cook. It’s safe to say I can cook and I know what I’m doing in the kitchens I showcase – because I’ve loved cooking since I was 16. When my mum passed away I pretty much took on the role of mum, so I had to cook properly.”

Lee remembers the December before her mother died, when her mother refused to cook Christmas dinner – and left it to her. “She literally went, no, I’m going to show you how to use the industrial oven [Lee grew up in a Chinese takeaway]and how not to blow up the kitchen with the gas wok – then you’re on your own.

“So I took on that challenge at the age of 16, the Christmas before she passed away. I made over 40 of my family members Christmas dinner – so it was a baptism of fire, but she obviously believed in me that I could do it.

“She came back and forth from our house [to the takeaway], just to check I was OK, but she let me on it. I think it was one of those things where she was preparing me for the future, strange as it sounds, because within two months she died very suddenly.”

So did Lee’s feast get the stamp of approval? “She just nodded,” says Lee. “In Chinese culture, praise is not a thing … But I got a nod, which meant a lot – that’s praise in itself.”

After her mother died, Lee’s confidence in the kitchen grew – mainly because she was forced to take on the role of cook, feeding her 15-year-old brother and seven-year-old cousin.

She began exploring all kinds of different dishes (many of which she would go on to showcase on Best Home Cook), but she admits she initially steered clear of Cantonese food. “I found it quite difficult to go that route,” admits Lee. “Because my mom was my idol, in a way. She was the best [at Cantonese cooking]. And I thought I hadn’t learned enough from her, whereas all the other cuisines I could explore on the internet, buy cookbooks, magazines, whatever, and play with—but traditional Cantonese cooking, to me, Mom had it up there—and I thought I can’t recreate it.”

Now, Lee has dedicated her first cookbook to Cantonese cuisine, with recipes in “broken down steps, so people don’t get scared of Chinese cooking”.

Growing up in a Chinese takeaway – Man Lee in Lisburn, which is still going strong – Lee is frustrated by the negative reputation takeaways can get.

“I think people have this stigma around takeaways, that they’re bad, but actually traditional Chinese cooking is about fresh food and fresh ingredients. It’s actually about being fast… You can get a really good stir-fry or chop suey, and it’s actually fresh vegetables and ingredients, where there’s not a lot of extra creams or really bad sauces in it.

“People think, ‘Oh, it’s so high in calories’ – but not really. It’s knowing that it’s fresh vegetables, you cook it very quickly, so you don’t lose the nutritional value of the vegetables.”

Lee’s book has a takeaway section, with recipes including sweet and sour chicken and spring rolls, and she adds: “It’s not the best for you, but it’s a treat. You’re not meant to eat sweet and sour Cantonese chicken—the deep-fried version—every day. It’s all about being responsible.”

She also wants to showcase the uniqueness of Cantonese food, compared to other regions in China. “Cantonese food is another strand to the whole Chinese story. Cantonese, it’s mainly Hong Kong, so it’s right by the sea. So it’s fish, and it’s about very fresh food,” she says.

“It’s about using all these flavors – the sweet, the sharp, but also the fresh – and playing with them. I think it’s a much cleaner taste, compared to if you go to the north of China. Szechuan cooking is obviously all about spices, everything is very spicy. It’s their culture, but with Hong Kong Cantonese cooking, because you were able to get fresh ingredients, they made sure those ingredients were singed on their own with a little soy—if it’s fresh fish, a little ginger, scallions and cloves . the court does its thing.”

‘Simply Chinese’ by Suzie Lee (published by Hardie Grant, £20; photograph by Lizzie Mayson), available 18 August.

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