TORONTO - It may be hard to imagine gourmet celebrity chef Susur Lee munching on sand-covered chicken wings, but the renowned restaurateur says it's a favourite memory from his childhood in Hong Kong.
"When I was a little boy, friends of mine decided to go camping, a day camp, so we had these barbecue chicken wings and we were barbecuing and I remember eating so much sand in my mouth because it was so dusty," Lee recalled.
"We just loved the area because it was just kids, freedom ... eating and hanging out.
"Now I have learned to kick it up another notch," he added with a laugh.
Camping and exploring parklands is often a favourite pastime for new immigrants to Canada, some of whom take food very seriously, Lee noted as he demonstrated Canadian Tire outdoor cooking gear at a recent promotional event.
"There are a lot of cultures that do love camping," said Lee, who came to Toronto around 1980 and opened up his first restaurant in the city, Lotus, in '87.
"For example, I was in Southeast Asia, I lived there for a few years, and every Sunday you would see people camping in the park or on the beach. When I go to the island even now ... (Toronto's) Centre Island, you can see people walking with big coolers and a ghetto blaster ... they have music, they bring their guitar, they bring their soccer game and then they start putting food on the (grill).
"And that really makes the new generation really form another culture."
Lee whipped up five courses for reporters at the Evergreen Brick Works environmental centre using Coleman and Broadstone equipment.
It was one of the hottest days of the summer in the city but Lee wasn't fazed.
"I love the heat," the ponytailed culinary master, who was a finalist on Season 2 of "Top Chef Masters," said as he fired up an array of propane-powered outdoor stoves and ovens.
"I used to live in Singapore with my family and this kind of weather reminds me of Southeast Asia — very humid, very hot."
Lee's meal, served on picnic tables, included: a Singapore-style shish kebab (marinated sirloin beef with barbecued shrimp and grilled pineapple and vegetables); soft polenta with dill and parmesan; polenta cakes topped with ground meat and cheddar cheese; grilled shrimp in tomato sauce with lemon; and Ontario strawberries cooked in butter and unfermented ice wine syrup on top of angel food cake with mint and lemon Greek yogurt.
When cooking outdoors, Lee recommends using marinated meat, which doesn't go bad as quickly and is convenient and packed with flavour.
He also prefers to use non-stick, propane-fuelled equipment as it gets very hot, delivers even heat and can be used anywhere (as opposed to charcoal grills that are banned in some areas).
Lee's other outdoor cooking tips include: cooking in an area that's not too windy; not flipping meat or vegetables too often on the grill so as to preserve the flavour and markings; making sure there's enough propane gas for cooking equipment; and covering food with mesh food screens.
"And of course you have to have ingredients — garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil. I think those are really major, for me," said Lee. "And lots of ice in the cooler."
Lee's restaurants include Lee in Toronto, Chinois in Singapore, and Zentan in Washington, D.C.
His next venue is Bent (named after his regular design collaborator and wife, Brenda Bent), which is slated to open in August in Toronto.
"The concept will be a very fresh, raw bar and also very slow-cooked food. So you have hot and cold food," said Lee, noting the concept was inspired by his experiences with his three sons, now ages 22, 20 and 14.
"When they were little boys ... one loved Japanese food and one loved Korean food, one only loved sort of like European (food). I had to go to three different places to actually satisfy them, so now it came very natural: 'OK, you like that? You love that too? I can do both.'"