The Building Blocks of Flavour

February 9th, 2010

Chef David Lee of Nota Bene pushes hard for success

David Lee, executive chef/partner at Nota Bene

David Lee is executive chef and co-owner of the acclaimed Toronto restaurant Nota Bene. Lee is a third generation chef who hails from the village of Hertfordshire in England. At 17, he moved to London where he worked at Restaurant Le Soufflé under the tutelage of Executive Chef Peter Kromberg.

Chef Lee moved to Canada when he was 24 and by the age of 29, he made his mark on the Toronto dining scene after acquiring the popular Splendido restaurant with partner Yannick Bigourdan. In 2008, Lee opened Nota Bene with Bigourdan and a third partner, Franco Prevedello.

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DE: Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?

DL: I think the reality is when you finish school you have to say what do you want to do. I knew one thing. I knew I didn’t want to work in an office and I knew I had to do something with my hands. I guess when you talk to a school, they ask what you love to do and I said I love to cook…my family has a big background of chefs and I knew I wanted to be creative.

And then I took to it very naturally. I went to cooking school part-time and did a 3 year apprenticeship. It was important to me to get working right away. I worked a year and half in my hometown, moving around every 4 -6 months working in different restaurants. Eventually I got a break going to London…the big city was my dream. When I saw these chefs on TV, it was just a vision, a dream. I remember seeing Chef Kromberg on TV and I said wow, he looks like a great chef to work for. So I went to interview with him and he was, he was fantastic.

DE: So how did you end up in Canada?

DL: I visited my uncle one year when I was 19 and I fell in love with Canada very easily, especially Toronto. I always wanted to go to a big city. It was very important…I’m just a city guy. I need that buzz. It’s where I’m most creative. There’s a lot of good energy and accessibility — that doesn’t mean you can get more, because in the country you can get a lot but in terms of growth back then, by the age of 24 those are the things I was looking out for in the future. And this is where I wanted to be.

DE: How did it compare to London? Why did you want to leave?

DL: London was great but the problem with London, I knew it would be very hard to get ahead in London. Canada is a much younger country. I believe it has more to offer. I wanted to bring my knowledge from what I learned in London and bring it to Canada; to start something very special and back then, Canada was definitely behind in cooking, in skill and exposure.

DE: When you first arrived you worked under Marc Thuet at his restaurant, Centro and said that it was instrumental because you needed to be disciplined? How so?

DL: I was disciplined in my cooking, I could bring a lot of ideas to the table but you have different types of personalities in chefs, and at 24 when I moved to Canada I was very wild. I needed someone strong like Marc to guide me. There was something I saw in Marc — that Marc loved to cook. That’s very important for me that all the chefs I’ve worked for, that they loved to cook because there are some chefs you work for and they could just have a name on a jacket and look good for the camera but at the end of the day it’s very important to me that you know how to cook because if not, it’s just a fake image.

DE: And so how did you evolve? What kind of chef are you now?

DL: I’m a very difficult guy to work for. I’m not an easy guy to work for but I’m a very fair guy to work for. I will put in a lot of hours into my kitchen with my cooks in order to get them to where they want to be in the next couple of years for their careers. That’s important to me but it’s also important to me in terms of my senior guys that they give that back to me as well because if I grow I want them to grow with me. It’s not just all about me. We run a company. I want to be successful but it’s about being a team. In order for that to happen you can’t have one guy going the other way. We all need to go forward. I’m very good at pushing people. I want them to excel so when they do leave me they have a good foundation and know they have a part of my cuisine in them.

DE: I suppose it’s a natural process that your chefs will move on, and nice to know that you’re influence is with them, but what about your secrets? Do you worry that your special methods or trade secrets are being taken from your kitchen?

DL: Funny thing about secrets — some say they should be shared. I believe they should be shared but I believe there is a rank, that you have to work for them. I don’t believe in giving anything away just in a day. It takes time and you have to earn it. I couldn’t imagine going in someone’s kitchen and asking to show me their secrets. It’s wrong. You have to work towards that.

DE: So let’s talk about your work and cuisine. How do you go about creating menus? Do you have ideas in your mind that you compose into recipes?

DL: They are no recipes really. When we first get a product we see what it’s like; we taste it plain and then we see what ingredients are in season and we start building. It’s like building blocks that we work on. I strive a lot for flavour. It’s important to me that I’m working with the best ingredients.

DE: What keeps you inspired to keep creating?

DL: Inspiration is very easy. I think it’s easy to get inspired. Because there’s so much out there that I’ll never know. I read a lot of books. I do a lot of research. I spend a lot of time at the farms. I’m working with this new farmer, a vegetable grower, and we do some fun things with that. The day that I leave this earth, I still won’t have learned 50% of what I could have learned. There’s always time to learn.

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DesignEats would like to thank Chef Lee for his time
and for sharing his story with us.
We wish him much continued success!

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Click here to read our feature on Nota Bene
as we interview co-owner Yannick Bigourdan


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