When Levi and Kai Bent-Lee decided they wanted to open a restaurant, they didn’t have far to go to find expert advice. As the sons of Chef Susur Lee, these brothers have gained a rare insight into the finest aspects of contemporary cuisine. Having traveled the globe and dined in some of the best restaurants, it’s no surprise that they have decided to create their own vision of a great dining experience. At 20 and 22, Kai and Levi have taken on what some may think of as a daring plunge into a tumultuous and nerve-wracking industry, but to these brothers it was never so much a question of if as it was when. And they certainly haven’t wasted any time. “We always had the idea of starting a restaurant. Obviously, we were born into the industry. We worked for my dad for years and wanted to branch off at some point and do our own thing. However, we’re still working very closely with dad.”After having both tried their hand at business school – Levi on a tennis scholarship in Toledo and Kai at Concordia in Montreal – the brothers decided they needed something a little more hands-on, but neither returned with the specific notion of opening a restaurant. “I moved back to Toronto and was anticipating going back to school here, but started working in the restaurant with my dad over at Madeleine’s until it closed, and it really came naturally to me. I remember one day I was traveling to Asia with my dad, and we started talking about different ways I could help develop the business and so I stuck with it and Kai came on board and it all sort of fell into place exactly how I envisioned it.”
A leg up, you can definitely say these brothers have, but there’s also a maturity and a certain type of well-placed bravado which appears to stem from dedication and years of working in the restaurant business. Kai started at a young age at his father’s restaurant. “I came on board as a food runner, worked my self up to a bar back. I was a bartender then I was serving, then managing the bar. So we really did take every small step you could.”Opening Bent on Dundas Street West, decidedly on the eastern stretch of a burgeoning culinary neighbourhood may have seemed like a logical place to create a new restaurant, but it was Levi’s determination to find a place that would become a part of the community that drove the location of the restaurant. “The one thing I always love when I come into work is to see how many people that come into this restaurant and know each other from living in the neighbourhood. That was the kind of vibe we were going for – comfortable and relaxed.” Designed by their mother, Brenda Bent, this endeavour was truly a family affair. Complete with a wall of letter press boxes containing toys that used to belong to the brothers, there are many moments in the interior that contribute to the atmosphere of the restaurant.T he brothers work with their father and Chef Brian Gunness to critique the dishes and refine the menu. There is, however, one interesting twist. Kai has a very specific palate. “I’m a really picky eater. I don’t eat any seafood, most cheese, any innards, organs, and things like that. I’m pretty simple.” Is that just preference, I ask. “It’s stupid, is what it is,” Levi chimes in with that particular affection that only siblings can get away with. Kai recounts tales of his father offering him money to eat oysters, but even with cash on the table, he couldn’t do it. Fortunately, Susur holds strong to his foundation of fusion cuisine, and Bent’s menu spans a wide range of flavours – from the raw bar and oyster shots (I didn’t need to be paid to eat them) to decadent braised short ribs, duck salad, and a fantastic spicy watermelon and tuna ceviche.W ith a life rich in food and travel, I have to know where the Bent-Lee brothers eat most often in Toronto.
“You know what, we eat out so much, and we frequent the same restaurants, but lately I’ve really been enjoying my mom’s home cooking. We miss it big time, because we don’t live at home anymore and we appreciate it now. You know your parents’ best dish, your favorite thing they cook. There’s nothing better than that. There’s no restaurant that makes that.”
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