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

Lee dedicated her debut cookbook to the Cantonese food her mother used to make (Lizzie Mason/Pennsylvania)

Lee dedicated her debut cookbook to the Cantonese food her mother used to make (Lizzie Mason/Pennsylvania)

Things may have blown up for Susie Lee after 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 quit her day-to-day work.

Lee is still an accountant by trade and 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 CPA, I still have an accounting business – that’s what brings in the money. The other stuff, as shiny as it looks, doesn’t pay the bills.”

However, Lee, 38, described winning the Best Home Chef award as “life-changing”, saying it had “opened so many doors”.

She adds: “Pretty much when I won Best Home Chef I was like OK, I can cook. It’s okay to say that I can cook and I know what I’m doing in the kitchens I feature – because I’ve loved cooking since I was 16. When my mom passed away, I pretty much took over as mom, so I had to cook properly.

Lee remembers the December before her mother’s death when her mother refused to cook the Christmas meal – leaving 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 this challenge at the age of 16, the Christmas before she died. I cooked Christmas dinner for over 40 members of my family – so it was a baptism of fire, but she obviously believed in me that I could do it.

“She used to come back and forth from our house [to the takeaway], just to check if I was okay, but she let me. I think it was one of those things where she was preparing me for the future, as strange as it sounds, because two months later she died suddenly.

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

After her mother passed away, Lee’s confidence in the kitchen grew – in large part 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 cuisines (many of which she would go on to showcase on Best Home Cook), but admits she initially avoided Cantonese food. “It was quite difficult for me to go down that path,” admits Lee. “Because my mother was my idol, in a way. She was the best [at Cantonese cooking]. And I thought I hadn’t learned enough from her, while all the other cuisines I could research on the internet, buy cookbooks, magazines, whatever, and play around with them—but traditional Cantonese cuisine, for me , my mother maintained it – and I told myself I can’t do that again.

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

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

“I think people have this stigma around takeaway that it’s bad, but really traditional Chinese cuisine is about fresh food and fresh ingredients. It’s really about speed… You can get really good fried or sliced ​​suey and it’s actually fresh vegetables and ingredients that don’t have a lot of unnecessary creams or really bad sauces.

“People think, ‘Oh, it’s so high in calories’ – but it’s not. Knowing that these are fresh vegetables, you cook them really quickly, so you don’t lose the nutritional value of the vegetables.

Lee’s book has a takeout 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 Cantonese sweet and sour chicken—the fried version—every day. It’s all about being responsible.”

She also wants to show the uniqueness of Cantonese cuisine compared to other regions in China. “Cantonese food is another thread of this whole Chinese story. Cantonese, it’s mostly Hong Kong, so it’s right by the seashore. So there’s fish and it’s all about very fresh food,” she says.

“It’s all about using all those flavors – the sweet, the spicy, but also the fresh – and playing with them. I find it has a much cleaner taste compared to if you go north of China. Szechuan cooking is really obvious about spices, everything is very heavily seasoned. It’s their culture, but with Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong, because you can get fresh ingredients, they’ve made sure that those ingredients sing on their own with a bit of soy – if it’s fresh fish, a bit of ginger, fresh onion and let the dish do its job .”

Simply Chinese by Susie Lee (published by Hardy Grant, £20; photography by Lizzie Mason), available 18 August.