"And every time it was much better than my mother's food, so I'd get really excited at Chinese New Year because I was always overeating and I would get sick literally because I would eat so much," says the celebrity chef with a laugh.
It may have been a foreshadowing of his career, as Lee has made a name for himself in the culinary world and currently owns three restaurants in Toronto — Luckee, Bent and Lee — with another, Lee Kitchen, set to open this spring at Toronto Pearson International Airport's Terminal 1.
"I had a nickname. They called me 'little piggy,' my Chinese name, Wai," Lee reminisces. "They did not know (I'd) become a food person like myself today. It kind of, like, makes sense now."
Lee plans to bid adieu to the Year of the Pig and welcome the Year of the Goat by taking his family to Luckee to dine on foods that are symbolic of Chinese New Year.
"Normally we go to a Chinese restaurant and order dishes that normally we don't eat at home," he said.
"This is a treat, sitting back and relaxing with friends and family."
Also called the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, celebrations can last for several days, with parades and fireworks. Family time includes eating special food, gift-giving, and wishes for prosperity and longevity.
Along with being able to taste new foods, Lee says as a child he also enjoyed getting new clothes and the red money envelopes, called lai see. He carries on the tradition with his three sons.
Being in Chinatown during the celebratory period "reminds me of my culture, where I come from and things that I used to do." He says it's like Christmas, with everyone in good spirits.
Lee wants his family to try Fat Choy Ho Sei, pork belly braised with winter melon, oysters and moss. "It is symbolic of a lot of good things happening in terms of business, love life, anything," the 57-year-old adds.
Savoury and sweet dumplings and noodles are generally on the menu.
Noodles are often long, symbolizing longevity. Most Cantonese dumplings are round, Lee notes, indicating perfection.
He likes sweet dumplings in which pastry enrobes coconut, sugar, peanuts and sesame and then are deep fried.
Also popular are mandarins, tangerines and kumquats. Lee says they're symbolic of gold because of their colour. Other sweets include almond cookies and winter melon candies.
When friends and family visit, snacks such as pumpkin seeds are set out.
Lee's mother worked outside the home and didn't have much time for cooking, but at Chinese New Year she made steamed chicken for him, his brother and four sisters. She poached it in bouillon and served it cut up with ginger and green onions.
"It's very simple and it's really good, especially the quality of the chicken."
Along with his role as a judge on Season 2 of "Chopped Canada," airing on Food Network Canada, Lee has teamed with Moishe Brown, owner of Modern Kosher Catering, to create a line of food to be added to the caterer's menu options for bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, baby namings and other parties.
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