The Northern Irish cook talks to Prudence Wade about her journey from the family’s takeaway to winning a BBC cooking show.
Things might have exploded for Suzie Lee since winning Best Home Cook in 2020 – she’s presented two cooking shows on BBC NI and is now releasing her debut cookbook – but that doesn’t mean she’s quit her day job.
Lee is still an accountant by trade, saying: “If you ever meet me, I will always say I’m an accountant who cooks, because that’s my day-to-day job. I’m still a chartered accountant, I still have my accountancy business – that’s what brings in the money. The other stuff, as much as it seems really glossy, it doesn’t pay the bills.”
However, Lee, 38, describes winning Best Home Cook as “life-changing”, saying it has “opened so many doors”.
She adds: “Pretty much when I won Best Home Cook, I was like OK, I can cook. It’s OK to say I can cook, and I know what I’m doing in the cuisines I’m showcasing – because I’ve loved cooking from the age of 16. When my mum passed away, I pretty much took on the role of mum, so I had to properly cook.”
Lee remembers the December before her mother died, when her mum refused to cook the Christmas meal – leaving it down to her. “She literally went, nope, 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 that challenge at the age of 16, the Christmas before she passed away. I cooked over 40 of my family members Christmas dinner – so it was a baptism of fire, but she obviously believed in me that I could do it .
“She came back and forth from our house [to the takeaway], just to check I was OK, but she let me at it. I think it was one of those things where she was prepping me for the future, strange as it sounds, because within two months she passed away very suddenly.”
So did Lee’s festive meal get the seal of approval? “She just nodded,” Lee says. “In Chinese culture, praise is not a thing… But I got a nod, which meant a lot – that is praise in itself.”
After her mother died, Lee’s confidence in the kitchen grew – largely because she was forced to take on the cooking role, feeding her 15-year-old brother and seven-year-old cousin.
She started exploring all kinds of different cuisines (many of which she would go on to showcase on Best Home Cook) but she admits she initially steered clear of Cantonese food. “I found it quite hard to go down that route,” Lee admits. “Because my mum was my idol, in a sense. She was the best [at Cantonese cooking]. And I thought I hadn’t learned enough from her, whereas all the other cuisines I could explore on the internet, buy cookbooks, magazines, whatever, and play around with – but traditional Cantonese cooking, for me, my mum held that up there – and I was like, I can’t replicate that.”
Now, Lee has dedicated her first cookbook to Cantonese food, with recipes in “broken down steps, so people won’t be scared of Chinese cooking”.
Growing up in a Chinese takeaway – the Man Lee in Lisburn, which is still going strong – Lee gets frustrated by the negative reputation takeout can get.
“I think people have this stigma around takeaways, that they’re bad, but actually, traditional Chinese cooking is all about fresh food and fresh ingredients. It’s actually about being quick… You can get a really good stir fry or chop suey , and that’s actually fresh vegetables and ingredients, where there are not many extra creams or really bad sauces in it.
“People are thinking, ‘Oh, it’s so high in calories’ – but not really. It’s knowing that it’s fresh vegetables, you’re cooking it really quickly, so you’re not losing the nutritional value of the vegetables.”
Lee’s book does have a takeaway 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 meant to be that you’re eating sweet and sour Cantonese chicken – the deep-fried version – every day. It’s all about being responsible.”
She also wants to showcase the uniqueness of Cantonese cuisine, compared to other regions in China. “Cantonese food is another string to that whole Chinese story. Cantonese, it’s mainly Hong Kong, so it’s right by the seaside. So there’s fish, and it’s all about very fresh food,” she says.
“It’s all about making use of all of those flavors – the sweet, the sharp, but also the fresh – and playing with those. I find there’s a much cleaner taste, compared to if you’re going to the north of China. Szechuan cooking is really obviously about spice, everything’s all very heavily spiced. That’s their culture, but with Hong Kong Cantonese cooking, because you were able to get fresh ingredients, they were making sure those ingredients sung on their own with a little bit of soy – if it’s fresh fish, some ginger, spring onion, and letting the dish do its thing.”
Simply Chinese by Suzie Lee is published by Hardie Grant, priced £20. Photography by Lizzie Mayson. Available August 18.