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`Susur A Culinary Life' by Hong Kong / Toronto Chef Susur Lee and a number of co-authors may be the apotheosis of the attractively pretentious tabletop culinary book. It is at least as attractive as Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's latest book and even has a few things of value over `Nobu Now'. It's first pretension is the fact that it is bound as two books, joined at the spine, as if it were two Siamese twins. Since it is impossible to separate the two books without ruining the value of this $50 list volume, and yet you simply cannot use the recipes in the second half without the pantry recipes in the first, this dual binding is purely for show, contributing to little except the cost of the book and the inconvenience of using the two parts of the book together. Not only that, the index for both `volumes' is in the second half, so the first half looses much of its value with it's index detached.

Reading this book has strong similarities to watching the Food Network show, `Iron Chef America'. Unless you happened to be a chef with major pretensions to serious `haute cuisine', you would simply never want to reproduce the recipes you see being conjured up by these very seriously talented and experienced chefs. Why in the world would you ever, for example, want to obtain a compressed air pump to assist in making Peking duck within an hour or screw a piece of fatback to a cedar plank to infuse it with the cedar taste? Susur Lee even presents the same persona as `Iron Chef' star Masaharu Morimoto, although I suspect Susur Lee is one or two cuts above Morimoto in overall culinary creativity.

The first of the two volume halves is made up of five essays written about Susur Lee in the third person by Jacob Richler, with credit for `creation' given to Sara Angel and to photography by Shun Sasabuchi and Edward Pond. I sense these essays loose a lot in being written in the third person. Even though Michael Ruhlman has done a lot of the writing for Eric Rippert (`A Return to Cooking') and Thomas Keller (`Bouchon', `The French Laundry Cookbook'), but in neither of these books do we feel removed from the real source of culinary inspiration springing from the imagination and thinkings of Rippert and Keller.

The five essays are largely chronological, but they start with `Elements of Taste 2000-2005', followed by `Hong Kong: French Lessons 1974-1980', `Local Hero: Lotus 1980-1997', and `Singapore: Five Thousand Years of Eating 1997-2000', only to return to the present with `The Susur Pantry 2000-2005'. By far the most important chapter in the first volume is the last, `Basic Recipes and Glossary'. The Glossary is fair and probably worthless if you have the `Larousse Gastronomique' or any other good culinary encyclopedia. The `basic recipes' are essential to understanding Susur Lee's recipes in the second half of the book, as they are specifically cited as ingredients to almost every recipe.

The second half of the book consists exclusively of 57 recipes for entrees. There is NO table of contents for these recipes and they appear in no logical order I can fathom regarding course or ingredient. Most are somewhere between the size of an appetizer and the size of a conventional main course.

As I said above, virtually all the recipes are impractical for one or more reasons. These are:

1. The recipes use ingredients that are difficult to obtain in many parts of the country such as fresh abalone, skate wing, and periwinkles.

2. The recipes use ingredients that are expensive such as truffles, foie gras, and fresh porcini mushrooms.

3. The recipes use an inordinately large number of ingredients, such as recipe 2.11, which uses 56 individual ingredients in six sub-recipes, with four of those sub-recipes using four other recipe preparations from Book 1.

4. The recipes call for some techniques which are probably beyond the patience of anyone but a professional, such as `frying' a squab by pouring very hot oil over the skin while holding the carcass over a bowl of hot oil for six or more minutes. And that was for just one serving! I could hardly believe it when Morimoto did that on `Iron Chef America' for 10 minutes, but that was for four servings from a single bird!

It is important to say that there are things of value to be found in this book, if you are a really serious foodie or a culinary professional. First, the photography of the finished dishes is exceptionally good, and, there is a photograph for every dish, and, the photograph appears alongside the recipe in almost every case. The exceptions are few enough not to be annoying. Second, the modularity of the recipes has much to teach the serious professional chef. This technique amounts to a graduate course in the ideas put out by Ming Tsai in his book, `Simply Ming', although Ming Tsai's presentation is much more friendly to the home cook. Third are the very same techniques I cite as being impractical for the home chef. While these may not be appropriate to the routine kitchen, they are a source of ideas to the ambitious chef who wants to know what the most adventuresome professionals are doing.

I am really hard pressed to decide between three and four stars. This is even more inaccessible than Nobu's books to which I gave four stars, yet it has some things which may actually be more interesting and valuable to the professional.

So, I give it four stars with a stern warning to the casual cookbook buyer that this is really a rather expensive investment written primarily for professionals and dedicated amateurs. But, if what you want is a conversation piece cookbook, this will fit that purpose pretty well.

Recommended to professionals.
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on February 20, 2006
Given the acidity of previous reviews, let me start with some background on myself: I am an American not resident in Canada; I am a non-professional chef -- I cook for myself, my family and my friends. I love food, both from the philosophy that one can learn the history of a country or region by learning about its cuisine and from the perspective that I truly believe we are what we eat ... and the miserable record of American health and longevity is directly due to the poor quality of what we consume.

I first saw Susur on Food Network's "Chef du Jour", where well-regarded chefs would do a single 30 minute program on a topic of their choice. That was at least 8 years ago. I think he may have been on one or two "Ready, Set, Cook" programs, but I'm not certain. He certainly didn't push to become a "celebrity chef", at least in the TV sense. He did become a celebrity in the culinary world: becoming one of Food & Wine's "10 Best Chefs in the World" is not a self-serving proclamation -- it is an evaluation by those who can and do taste the food of all the best and near-best.

I've had the good fortune to have an expense account and a business that required me to take clients to dinner, so I've had the privilege of eating at many of the finest restaurants in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia. My personal opinion is that Susur belongs among the finest and if in Toronto, it would be my first choice of a dining location -- yes, even if I were paying the bill myself -- some meals are worth every penny of the cost.

I've eaten at his restaurant in Toronto many times, on business trips. The food has always been spectacular, along with the service, along with the description of the philosophy behind each dish. A meal at Susur's not only satisfies the body; it's an education in itself. Again, this is not simply my opinion -- read the reviews in Toronto's newspapers, or read the reviews and look at the scores in zagat.com. Susur isn't the only "great chef" in Toronto, but he is clearly in that category.

Finally, to the book itself: Yes, the binding is unusual), as is the organization (would I count it as 2 books -- no -- do I think that volume 1 as a biography and volume 2 as recipes are two very different works -- absolutely yes). Most chefs don't provide a personal biography and discuss the evolution of their philosophy of cuisine. If you want lots of recipes you can make with ingredients found anywhere, there are thousands of such cookbooks to choose from (start with Rachel Ray's "30 Minute Meals" and go from there). On the other hand, if you want to learn about how to layer flavors, and see how a master puts together a pantry, this is the book to read. The same advice (for flavor, you need sauces, pastes, and other preps) is given by most chefs in cooking courses and is found in lots of other cookbooks -- just to mention a few in Chinese, try Barbara Tropp's "China Moon Cookbook", Nina Simonda "Spoonful of Ginger", Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's "From the Earth" or Emily Grace's "Breath of a Wok". Susur's are more complex, and more subtle, but taste the food and you'll see how it transcends anyone else's.

Is this a book I will cook from daily? No, and Susur is the first to admit that his cuisine needs a tremendous amount of manpower to achieve. Will this book teach me to be a better chef? Absolutely. Will it have a place of honor in my kitchen? Assuredly. Study it, think about it, and learn from it ... and if you have the opportunity, go to Toronto ... and taste it.
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on April 9, 2006
Pretty coffee table book...don't buy for the recipes unless you are a professional. I am a chef and have been at several for and five star establishments. I had the pleasure a few years ago to do a banquet with Susur and he is the real deal. Will his techniques translate to the amateur cook looking to learn from his book? No. These are professional recipes designed to be executed by a top class brigade with years of technique and time to prepare the needed mis en place. But as a professional, the way he approaches food as well as the culinary foundation that he has built for himself is unique and will be appreciated by those in the know. What isn't pretentious about a $50 coffee table book? This book gives exposure to a unique and talented chef who is grounded in solid technique and is able to translate that into well presented and balanced dishes that are not silly fusion. Definetly worth a look.
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on November 8, 2005
The two books bound together as one is perhaps pretentious, but it serves to separate the ideas and philosophies from the recipes. They both give a unique view into what makes one of the most inventive chefs alive, tick. The recipes are complex and may not be recreated by many readers, but the ideas within them including many novel flavor combinations will likely be a source of inspiration to any keen amateur chef who reads this book.
I'll agree with other reviewers that this book is indeed pretentious. But so is having an old copy of Larouse Gastronomique, or just about every 'top restaurant' book out there. Shame on anyone in Toronto who hasn't made the trip to Susur's restaurant, it isn't insanely expensive, and I managed to get in mid week without having booked. Very few people will ever be able/willing to make any of the recipes in this book for themseleves, but all should be able to gain some inspiration from the ideas and flavor combinations presented in these pages.
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on August 20, 2013
This book is not for your average home cook, if you believe that you have a little more then a bit of flare in the kitchen, this is one man that can put flavour's together, for the budding chefs there are some flavour's that can be explored
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on January 18, 2007
i bought it for my boyfriend, who is an aspiring chef and loves asian cuisine. he loves it - its a beautiful and inspiring book. i wouldn't recommend it for anyone who is just interested in cooking at home.
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on August 8, 2009
One of the better culinary books I have read. Susur's recipes might be for everybody. The design of the book is beautiful. Not just your simple 'cookbook' - it is infomative, gives a great perspective on Susur's path to fame and is very user-friendly.
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on March 19, 2006
This book its all about creativity by a man who has been over looked for too many years as one of the worlds Top Chefs. This book is in one simple word "Awesome"
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on February 16, 2006
Delusions of Grandeur-Self Proclaimed "Toronto's Local Hero"

I am an intermediate level amateur cook, and pretty aware of cutting edge chefs, cooks and well written cookbooks, and Susur Lee and his book's grandiose recipes may wow small town folks and some home cooks, however he is delightfully delusional in his self importance, proclaiming himself THE "Local Hero" of Toronto, when my long time Toronto friends have not even heard of him!

I highly suggest you first read his very complex, hours long recipes, before spending good money for just 50 or so difficult and few recipes.

Chicago's Chef Charlie Trotter has similar recipes in terms of ingredients unobtainable to less than high end restaurant chefs, and may also have 20-40+ ingredients per dish, requiring an army of assistants to pull it off, however he does not have an entire book devoted to a sycophant praising his own wonderfulness. His combinations also "taste well" together in reading the ingredients, and he has books with "doable" ingredients and they are quite cookable by home cooks.

Susur credits his departed wife Marilou with his success, but others who gave him a "leg up" don't rate even a photo in this paen to his brilliance, as Susur takes back stabbing jabs at better known chefs who helped his career.

Instead of, having say instructive photographs at different stages of a complex dish's creation, he has instead chosen such childish photo selections as photos of his wonderful doodles of his own name, his hand written recipes, and doodling of a seating chart...

Does "You're Su-su vain" come to mind?

Hold that song in mind, as you smile and flick through the first 113 pages of his ego inflating toady's drivel, without even seeing one real recipe.

Oh, the recipes are in the "second" bound book, tighly bound, like a dead Siamese twin to this "first" book. So yes, he has thus published "two" books...um, sure, Susu, we're counting with you. Clever ploy; publish "Susur's Cooking Triptych" next time, and get credit for 5 books, total! (Toronto is certainly still cleaning up from the ticker tape parades for this self proclaimed "Local Hero's" creations!)

Why pay $50 (now down to $30) for only fifty some pretentious recipes, each with 25-45+ ingredients that you are more likely to laugh at, than cook... even one bloated recipe? Borrow this from Susu's large stack of "returns", or from a library, first, before buying!

Forget about "The Emperor's New Clothes"...this is the "Emperor's Trendy Cook Book!"

I do like the professionally styled photos of his creations. You or I could cook them if we had 2 assistant cooks,the strange collection of fresh ingredients, and gratuitous foie gras and black truffles added to many recipes.

Susu's has a dreadful hodgepodge of instructions and techniques, having the reader hopping between both "books" to cobble together a dish, and there's no Table of Contents to organize this chaotic collection.

He knows cooking techniques. I'd happily dine at his restaurant. Teaching techniques by a book is another story. For beginning and intermediate cooks, the cooking techniques that he glides over are far, far better explained in many cookbooks that the professional chefs already consult.

Some well thumbed cookbook/testbooks include "On Cooking Techniques from Expert Chefs"-Labensky, "Essentials of Cooking"-James Peterson, Jacques Pepin's "Complete Techniques", "La Varenne Pratique"- Anne Willan"The Zuni Cafe"-Rodgers, "The New Making of a Cook"-Kamman, "Glorious French Cooking"-Peterson, "Modern Art of Chinese Cooking"-Trop, "The Key to Chinese Cooking"-Kuo, etc.

Big Propblem is...home cooks, without two helpers, will be very frustrated by the hard to find ingredients and the time consuming, convoluted recipes in this cookbook.

Try making Susur's "Pan-roasted scallops, with sunchoke puree, pancetta, periwinkles in truffle sauce and preserved lemon".

Hmmm, if someone mixing up 1000 snippets of culinary nouns in a hat, then let a trained gerbil randomly pick out, then line up the first 10 to 15 words that came out... the resulting recipe titles may even be more appealing to you and I than Susur's convoluted "con-Fusion" titles that easily awe rookie foodwriters and rookie cooks...

Make his "Elk striploin with yamaimo, arame, uni, with burnt butter soy sauce", (40+ ingredients) or try "Braised veal cheek, with parsnip puree, cocoa nibs, grapes stuffed with dry-cured olives, and parmesan (also with over 40 ingredients).

Maybe the "Tuna with wasabi and parsnip mousse on cucumber jelly with crispy squid ink noodle" would whet your whistle. I'd rather go to the grocery store and make "Spiced seaweed crusted red mullet with saffron mayonnaiase and zuchini flower fritters".

A memorable dish is "Roast squab and foie gras stuffed squab legs in port sauce, with lotus root and baby corn, blueberry preserve, and taro root fritters" (>30 ingredients).

Step aside, Charlie Trotter, you've been "out Trottered" by Susu and his caramelized nuts...

For the amusement value, the professionally styled photos of plates that would leave most folks hungry from the tiny portions, and the sad need for the dramatic Napoleonic pose and prose by the self proclaimed "Local Hero of Toronto"... I still give him 3 stars...it takes guts (braised with cocoa, blueberry and truffle oil), to be so sweet and childlike in his vanity!
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