The Northern Irish cook talks to Prudence Wade about her journey from family takeaway to winning a BBC cooking show.
Things may have skyrocketed for Suzie Lee since winning Best Home Cook of 2020 – she’s presented two cooking shows on BBC NI and is now publishing her first cookbook – but that doesn’t mean that she quit her day job.
Lee is still an accountant by trade, saying, “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, even though it looks really brilliant, doesn’t pay the bills.
However, Lee, 38, describes the Best Home Cook award as “life-changing”, saying it has “opened so many doors”.
She adds: “When I won the Best Home Cook award, I was like OK, I can cook. It’s okay to say I know how to cook, and I know what I’m doing in the kitchens that I present – because I loved cooking from the age of 16. When my mom passed away, I pretty much took on the role of mom, so I had to cook well.
Lee recalls the December before his mother’s death, when his mother refused to cook Christmas dinner – leaving it to her. “She literally went, no, I’ll 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 are on your own.
“So I took on this challenge when I was 16, the Christmas before she passed. I cooked Christmas dinner for over 40 of my family members – so it was a baptism of fire, but she obviously believed in myself that I could do it.
“She was going back and forth from our house [to the takeaway], just to check that I was okay, but she let me. I think it was one of those things where she was preparing me for the future, strange as it may seem, because within two months she passed away very suddenly.”
So, did Lee’s dinner party get the stamp of approval? “She just nodded,” Lee said. “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’s death, Lee’s confidence in the kitchen grew – largely 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 sorts of different cuisines (many of which would later be featured on Best Home Cook), but she admits she eschewed Cantonese cuisine at first. “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, when all the other cuisines I could explore on the internet, buy cookbooks, magazines, whatever, and play with – but traditional Cantonese cuisine, for me, my mom was holding that up there – and I was like, I can’t replicate that.”
Today, Lee has dedicated her first cookbook to Cantonese cuisine, with recipes “in broken down steps, so people won’t be afraid of Chinese cuisine.”
Growing up in a Chinese takeaway restaurant – the Man Lee in Lisburn, which is still going strong – Lee is frustrated with the negative reputation takeaways can have.
“I think people have this stigma around takeout, that it’s bad, but really, traditional Chinese food is about fresh food and fresh ingredients. It’s actually about be quick… 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.
“People think, ‘Oh, that’s so high in calories’ – but not really. It’s knowing that these are fresh vegetables, you cook them very quickly, so you don’t lose the nutritional value of the vegetables. ”
Lee’s book has a take-out 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. It’s not It’s not supposed to be that you eat sweet and sour Cantonese chicken – the fried version – every day. It’s about being responsible.”
She also wants to highlight the uniqueness of Cantonese cuisine, compared to other regions of China. “Cantonese food is another string in this whole Chinese story. Cantonese is mostly Hong Kong, so it’s right by the sea. So there’s fish, and it’s all about the food very fresh,” she said.
“It’s about using all of these flavors – the sweet, the tangy, but also the fresh – and playing around with those. I find there’s a much cleaner taste, compared to if you go in northern China. Szechuan cuisine is really all about spices, everything is very spicy. That’s their culture, but with Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong, because you could get fresh ingredients, they’re assured that these ingredients sang alone with a little soy – if it’s fresh fish, ginger, spring onion and let the dish do its thing.”
Simply Chinese by Suzie Lee is published by Hardie Grant, priced at £20. Photograph by Lizzie Mayson. Available August 18.