Levi and Kai Bent-Lee are the brothers behind Bent restaurant, a bustling hotspot in Toronto's Little Portugal, and the second establishment in the city for the Lee family. Levi and Kai were immersed in the restaurant industry from birth; their father, Susur Lee, is an internationally acclaimed Canadian chef. In 2011, Levi and Kai branched off to pursue their dream of starting their own restaurant. Bent's seafood-centric menu is international in scope and the restaurant boasts a divided raw bar and hot kitchen, as well as house-designed cocktails. Keeping it all in the family, the boys and their father created the menu together, while the restaurant is named for their mother's maiden name. ORGNL.TV met with Levi and Kai to learn more about the restaurant, menu inspiration, cocktails and plans for the future. Here’s what they had to say.
“If people are enjoying your food, menu, cocktails and everything all comes together, the people and money will come, and it all sort of falls into place.”
Growing up, Levi was a competitive tennis player. Both brothers are in their early 20s.
Levi: It was about four years ago, I had just moved back from college and started working as a bus boy. Eventually, I worked my way up to where I am now. Throughout this whole transition and being a server, I kind of talked Kai out of working in the kitchen. Also, he doesn’t eat seafood or cheese.
Kai: I started in the industry my first summer out of high school. I was doing a bit of my own off-site catering, doing events like Pride and Luminato. I started out doing food from the back of house and then after university, I started working as a bus boy, then that turned into food running, bartending, serving and bar managing.
Kai: The kitchen is split up in two – we have the raw bar in the main room and the hot kitchen in the back. Coming from the raw bar, we have a seafood-centric menu, focusing on all international types of raw including South American ceviches, Japanese sashimis, Italian crudo and freshly shucked oysters. From the hot kitchen it really ranges. We have slow-cooked short ribs, roasted scallops – the menu is very eclectic and international. The wine list is sake-driven, which pairs nicely with our cuisine. All of our cocktails are designed in-house.
Levi: When we were working at Lee – I managed, Kai was bar managing – our future plan has always been to open our own restaurant, something smaller than Lee (our family's first restaurant). Kai actually found the location for Bent, and we all fell in love with it. My father and I have always really loved ceviche so we wanted to develop a menu around different styles of raw food. It all fell into place once we found the space, and my dad slowly began to become more inspired by different foods. We were travelling a lot at the time, so he picked up different ideas.
Kai: I would say our tuna watermelon ceviche, lobster tacos and braised short ribs. For cocktails, we have our house favourites that always stay on the menu, and then we have a seasonal menu with four cocktails that change every month to embrace the ingredients we grow in Ontario. The most popular is probably our Asian caesar, followed by our bourbon sour.
Kai: I create all of the cocktails and develop the wine and sake list, so my influence is pretty much the whole alcohol program. I have never cooked, but I’ve started to experiment a little bit with a couple of dishes. I’ve been developing an interest for pastries, actually.
Levi: For our regular dinner menu, it’s all our dad at the end of the day, but he comes to us for a lot of questions, looks to us for ideas, we travel together all the time and experience new cuisines together. He usually comes to me for seafood and Kai for meats. He’s always looking to us for input.
Kai: I think the tuna watermelon ceviche is very unique. Everything we do is quite original.
Levi: I don’t think so. If you’re going to become a chef and be a successful one, or follow in the footsteps of someone like my dad, you need to start young. He started in the kitchen when he was 14. One of the things he says to me is that chefs nowadays don’t put in the same amount of time like they used to. My dad is very old school when it comes to being a chef. If I ever were to become a chef, I see the proper way to do it is the way he did it – basically sacrificing your entire life to being in the kitchen every single day.
Levi: People enjoying your food and your menu more than anything. If people are enjoying your food, menu, cocktails and everything all comes together, the people and money will come, and it all sort of falls into place.
Levi: Opening Bent, and also running Lee restaurant which is my dad’s.
Kai: Having both is a nice yin and yang. They are very different.
We have a new project in the works for next spring. Whatever people may be expecting, it’s not that. It’s something very different and something we’re very passionate about.
Stoli® Gold - 2 parts
Gin - 3 parts
Sweet White Vermouth - ½ part
Great cocktails start with responsible measuring.