David Lee

Trained in the classical European system, David Lee has been an innovative chef and restaurateur in everything from traditional French-style fine dining to carefully sourced, plant-based cuisine.

David Lee, chef, restaurateur (born 1970 in Paddington, London, England). David Lee is one of Canada's last remaining chefs trained in the classical European system of kitchen apprenticeships. He has been the owner of and executive chef for some of Toronto's best-known restaurants for over fifteen years.

Early Life

Lee is of Hakka, Chinese and French descent. He is an only child and was born in London, England and spent his early childhood in London as well.

When Lee was six he moved with his family to Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa. There he was the youngest of more than a dozen cousins -- his mother was one of 13, and his father had eight siblings. With such a large extended family, his grandmothers who did the cooking had to be able to source ingredients and prepare food for large groups. They sowed the seeds that would later grow into Lee's appreciation for carefully choosing ingredients and the pleasure that comes from offering hospitality.

He is the third generation of his family to work in restaurants. His dad's family worked in a gastropub in Mauritius, and that was his earliest exposure to professional cooking.

Training in Michelin-starred Restaurants

During Lee's first apprenticeship, in Hertfordshire, England, he was taught to build dishes around the area's abundant wild game meat.

At 17, he moved to London to take his first job in a Michelin-starred restaurant, Peter Kromberg's Le Souffle restaurant in the Hotel Intercontinental. His exposure to Michelin-starred cooking continued when he was hired as chef tournant (relief cook), under Eric Allouche, at Relais & Chateau at Hotel Fleur du Lac in Switzerland.

Anton Mosimann, one of the best-known European chefs of the early 1990s, hired a 22-year-old Lee to be the saucier and sous chef at Mosimann's, his hybrid private club and restaurant in London. As part of his duties, he travelled the world and cooked for the celebrity chef's list of famous clients.

One of the highlights from this time, according to Lee, were the week-long stays at Sandringham, where he cooked for Charles, Prince of Wales and his guests. During these stints, the chefs prepared the game, hunted on the royal estate, for the table.

Coming to Toronto

With relatively few existing links to Canada, Lee took a risk by immigrating in 1994. He saw the country as a land of opportunity -- both regarding a high standard of living and an abundance of natural ingredients paired with a developing restaurant industry -- and wanted to be part of its culinary growth.

His first kitchen job in North America was as chef du cuisine at Centro Toronto. The 175-seat restaurant on Yonge Street was part of a wave of Italian restaurants that challenged the idea that fine dining in Toronto should be either French or steak. Marc Thuet, one of Toronto's best-known French chefs, was Centro's executive chef when Lee joined.

Opening Splendido

In 2001, after leaving Centro, Lee joined with Yannick Bigourdan to buy Splendido on Harbord St., west of Spadina Ave.

During Lee's time as its executive chef, Splendido was one of Toronto's best reviewed and most opulent restaurants -- not just maintaining white tablecloths but also vestiges from an earlier age of fine-dining like a champagne cart and dedicated stools for guests' purses. The menu, including the option of six- or seven-course chef's tasting dinners, was built around traditional French fine-dining technique and premium ingredients, like truffles, duck prosciutto and the freshest possible seafood, both imported and from Canada.

While he was executive chef at Splendido, Lee got a rare invitation to plan and cook a dinner at the James Beard House in New York City. The menu he created for the September 2005 event highlighted Canadian wine and ingredients, including maritime lobster, Quebec foie gras and Ontario produce.

After eight years, Lee sold Splendido to two employees: chef de cuisine Victor Barry and general manager Carlo Cattalo. Barry closed Splendido in 2015 and reopened it as a more casual Italian restaurant called Piano Piano.

Adding Restaurants

While still at Splendido, Lee and Bigourdan partnered with veteran Toronto restaurateur Franco Prevedello (who also had a stint as a Splendido co-owner) to open Nota Bene on King St. W. Their plan, after the 2008 recession, was to maintain an attachment to fine dining, but move away from tasting menus and formal French service.

Nota Bene received mainly glowing reviews from Toronto critics, and both enRoute magazine and Toronto Life named it their best new restaurant of 2008.

Lee, along with partners Bigourdan and Prevedello, followed the general trend towards drastically more casual restaurants when they opened their next venture in 2014. The Carbon Bar, at Queen St. E. and Church St., was designed to be both a southern barbeque restaurant and a toned-down nightclub.

The smoked meat in the American tradition was a departure from Lee's experience and the Carbon Bar received mixed reviews. Before it was a year-old, the trio of partners decided on an amicable split that had Lee keep Nota Bene to himself while Prevedello and Bigourdan held onto Carbon Bar.

In early 2016, Lee closed Nota Bene for a brief stint to renovate and update his menu. Sourcing meat and poultry from local farmers who subscribe to free-range techniques and offering a selection of plant-based dishes were priorities for the menu redesign.

Mentor to Chefs

At Centro, Splendido and Nota Bene, Lee was a leader for relatively large kitchen teams that mimicked the structure he trained under in Europe. During this time, he took his role as a teacher and mentor seriously.

Some of Toronto's best-known chefs have worked in David Lee kitchens. That list includes Michael Steh (Chase Hospitality Group), Cora James (Bar Buca), Trevor Wilkinson (Trevor), Emma Herrera (Planta), and Anthony Rose who owns his own group of restaurants.

Outside of the city, Lee proteges include Niagara's Daniel Hadida (Pearl Morissette Winery) and Vancouver's Josh Wolfe (Fresh | Local | Wild).

Plant-based Menus

Inspired by the challenge of cooking for a vegan client, Lee has devoted much of his attention in 2016 to creating menus based entirely on ingredients derived from plants. At home, he has followed an entirely plant-based diet since the beginning of the year.

After this personal experience and the successful test of a vegetarian section on the new menu at Nota Bene, he decided that his next restaurant would follow suit. To accomplish this goal, he partnered with Steven Salm of Toronto's Chase Hospitality Group to open Planta in Yorkville, near Bay St. and Bloor St. W.

Lee applies his usual rigorous attention to sourcing ingredients, all grown within 100 kilometres of the restaurant, from Toronto farmers' markets for the menu at Planta. Here, Lee applies the smoking techniques from his time at the Carbon Bar to give vegetarian dishes flavours that diners usually associate with meat. Some of the plates, like coconut ceviche or a dish of watermelon and kombu, draw from a global palette of traditional vegetarian cuisines; others, such as the cheese-less pizza or smoked carrot made to look exactly like a hot dog, are coy plays on carnivorous favourites.

Awards

Independent Restaurateur of the Year (with Yannick Bigourdan), Ontario Hostelry Institute (2007)

Best new restaurant (for Nota Bene), Toronto Life and enRoute magazine ( 2008

Gold medal, Toronto section of Gold Medal Plates.