Passion, teamwork, respect: the cornerstones of Chef David Lee’s professional life. They are also the underlying reasons for the continuing success of his co-owned restaurant Splendido, which he took over in partnership with Yannick Bigourdan in 2001.
Splendido, nestled among other fine establishments on Harbord Street, just off Spadina, is among the eating jewels of Torontonians ‘in-ihe-know’ crowd, easily ranked with Sotto Sotto, and Centro’s for fine dining. Inside, the atmosphere is one of refined elegance, with mocha walls, abstract art by Stanley Feldman, and fragrant yellow roses glowing under the grand central chandelier.
Coming to Canada in 1994 at age 24, David Lee was hired as chef de cuisine by Marc Thuet, executive chef/owner of Centro Grill & Wine Bar. His career started at age 17, in England, as first commis at the Hotel Intercontinental in Hyde Park, with German chef Peter Kromberg. Promotion took him to chef tournant with French chef Eric Allouch, and then saucier, and sous-chef for Swiss master chef, Anton Mosimann.
Lee credits Mosimann with giving him a love for Cuisine Naturele (a menu of simple, healthy, food without using cream, alcohol or butter), and “my first chance to make a statement with food, but still make food that tastes good.”
And although he now uses those ingredients as chef at Splendido, Lee’s quest is still “for honest food – striving to be inspired by the produce the farmers give to us.”
He considers superb food and service to be critical to the success of the restaurant and credits his front-of-house staff with providing thai welcoming, professional atmosphere: where “you walk in the door, and you’re taken care of.”
The smallest details are important, like providing a purse stool’ for ladies’ purses, instead of them being hooked awkwardly over the chair or placed on the floor.
Lee’s apprentice chefs accompany him on early morning visits to the Terminal Food Market, to learn first hand his principle of choosing food with “quality I believe in and will fight for”. He says, “It’s important to know where the food comes from, to understand the farmers, and to respect the produce.”
Lee sources the best of everything, and uses specialized producers such as Cumbrae Farms for naturally-raised beef, and Milky Way Farm for cheese.
“Canadian farmers do a great job.” he says, and he firmly believes that Canada has better availability of seafood than Europe.
He enjoys changing the menu three to four times a month, always using seasonal produce. Apart from the comprehensive a la carte menu, and 700+ wine cellar, Splendido has the ‘Chef Tasting Menus’ – a chance to experience six or seven dishes. ‘”It’s important to let go, trust the chef, and experience different foods,” Lee says.
September’s five-course Tasting Menu is Lee’s salute to his staff – a combination of dishes individually created by each member of his kitchen team. Lee says, “It’s my thanks to my team for the wonderful milestones we have reached working together at Splendido.” Ontario wineries Malivoire will complement each dish, including Lake Superior Pickerel Filet; yellow plum gratine; and ‘Werry Farms Clover Hay’ Baked Chump of Dorset Lamb with Rosemary Garlic Jus.
Originally published in ‘Centre of the City’ magazine, Toronto. Canada.
Photos by William Meijer