Q&A: Levi Bent-Lee, the man behind Bent and the son of super-chef Susur Lee

Q&A: Levi Bent-Lee, the man behind Bent and the son of super-chef Susur Lee

Levi Bent-Lee is opening his first restaurant, Bent, at Dundas and Bathurst. His dad will run the kitchen. Things could get complicated

(Image: Mark Peckmezian)

You’re 22. What qualifies you to open a restaurant?
I essentially grew up in a restaurant, and my father has taught me so much. I’ve travelled to Japan, Bali, Hong Kong, mainland China, Macau and Singapore, and all over Europe and the U.S. I’ve eaten some crazy stuff: turtle, pig snout, fish sperm. That one was gross. You eat it with soy sauce.

I assume it won’t be on the menu at your restaurant. What will be?
There will be a raw bar in the front for ceviche and Japanese crudo, and a hot kitchen in the back. I’ll run operations, my younger brother Kai will run the bar, and my dad will run the kitchen.

Your dad is famously untamable. If he’s late for work, will you give him hell?
My dad is late all the time, but somehow, he always has a good excuse for it. Even if he’s just been sleeping, it’s because he works so friggin’ hard and deserves that sleep.

Recently, he has had a string of coolly received efforts, most notably Shang in New York, which was widely panned and closed last year. Do you and Kai feel added pressure, given that context?
There’s always pressure when you open a restaurant. But I don’t fear that if we mess it up it’s going to ruin my dad’s name.

What do you and your dad argue about?
My dad’s so weird. He’s a perfectionist. Sometimes I think he wakes up and decides to be a prick. He’ll nitpick at everything, and there’s nothing you can do. You just say, “I’ll take care of it.”

You’ve said that your dad is your best friend, despite your scuffles, and you named the restaurant after your mom, Brenda Bent. Why aren’t you like normal families, who kinda hate each other?
I never gave my parents anything to be angry about. The exception was when I took a year off after high school and didn’t have a job. I remember being about five hours into a Guitar Hero session, and my dad woke up in one of those moods and said, “Son, it’s time to find a job.” I ignored him. Then, without a word, he grabbed the guitar, and wham! smashed it right through the TV. I thought, “Maybe it’s time to get a job.”

Do you still live with your parents?
No. Kai and I live in a loft at Bloor and Dovercourt, but I’m moving out. We both have girlfriends, so it can be awkward.

Is your girlfriend as into food as you are?
She definitely eats as much as I do. On our second date, at School in Liberty Village, she ordered a giant barbecue chicken club and took a monster bite. Some bits were hanging out of her mouth, so she shoved them in with her fingers. I was like, “This is my kind of girl.”

As kids, did you and Kai bring exotic lunches to school?
Never. Our dad was always too busy, so our mom made the lunches. We’d get two slices of rye with ham, a slice of cheese, no mayo, no butter, a Cheestring and a yogurt tube. My mom’s a great cook, but when it came to lunches she was like, “Whatever.”

Does your dad like her cooking?
He does, but sometimes he’s not in the mood for it. He’ll never say so—he’ll just get up and start making his own thing. My mom gets so pissed. You have no idea.

You were a national-level tennis star. What was your highest ranking?
Number one in Ontario in my under-18 year. But I was such a baby, always breaking my racquet. I played Milos Raonic a few times but never beat him.

Are you a better general manager than you are a tennis player?
Totally. But tennis taught me a lot. I wasted so much talent. My dad always says, “By the time you’re 40, you want to be comfortable, so make as much money as you can now. Enjoy life when you’re older.” That’s what I’m going to do.