Kai and Levi Bent-Lee have better Instagram accounts than most rappers. From sleek cars to enviable wardrobes and gourmet dishes, scrolling through their feeds can feel like flipping through an issue of a glossy magazine. Even their YouTube channel is an immersive experience, more reminiscent of a prestige television show than a simple vlog. In one video, Levi takes a drive in a McLaren with Ben Baller; in another, Kai gives subscribers a tour of his cavernous walk-in closet.
Sons of Susur Lee, the legendary Canadian chef responsible for ushering in Asian-fusion dining in Toronto, the brothers have emerged not only as influencers but as serious restaurateurs. They grew up in Toronto’s Little Italy neighborhood, and spent summers working at their father’s restaurant and serving on food trucks. At restaurants Luckee (known for its dim sum) and Lee, a contemporary Asian fusion spot, they worked the front of house.
In 2012, they began their first official foray into the family business, opening Bent, a hip eatery in Toronto’s swanky Dundas Street West. Then, in 2015, they teamed up with Drake to create Fring’s. With its sophisticated yet relaxed atmosphere and a menu that elevates bar food towards haute cuisine (think crispy chicken sliders with melted cheese and remoulade), Fring’s has become a hub for celebrities, athletes, tourists and foodies.
Kai and Levi have removed preconceived notions that fine dining has to be stuffy and formal. They’ve created an experience that reflects the ways in which a new generation eats and socializes.
Over the phone we talked about fashion and food, becoming part of Drake’s crew, and what’s next for the enterprising brothers.
Your father started working in kitchens at 14 and now he’s amassed tremendous success. What has he taught you about work ethic?
Levi: When we were growing up we didn’t get to see our dad that much. He was always working. After our first year of university, Kai and I both dropped out to help with the family business. We never worked in the kitchen like our dad, the hours of physical labor he’s put in compared to us is incomparable, but he showed us the value of hard work. Working in the kitchen is extremely difficult. Everything my dad learns he still passes on to us.
Kai: It really set a standard for us. We saw the way he pursued excellence, his attention to detail, his mastery and it's helped us apply it to our own businesses. If we don’t match that level of hard work, how would we ever match his level of success ourselves? We always think of that.
What roles did you take working alongside your dad?
Kai: Fortunately, we don’t do as much manual labor as we used to. But early on, not only did we have to, we wanted to. In high school I worked on a food truck. A year later Levi started doing it with me. We did everything — festivals, dinners, daily customers. At our dad’s restaurant we learned by taking on each role. We worked in the kitchen, bar-backed, bartended, and after we came home one year, we decided to try front of house.
Levi: That’s one of the biggest misconceptions people have about us. They see all the nice things, all the traveling, and the fun but it wasn’t always like that. It’s only in the past two years that we’ve become more visible on social media, so much of that period people didn’t see. I was a server for years at Lee. Then I worked my way towards assistant floor manager. Then junior manager. And finally general manager. We were regular employees and that taught us so much about business.
Do you feel pressure to live up to your dad’s legacy?
Kai: Luckily, I’ve never really thought about living up to his name. We’re both ambitious and definitely want to pursue excellence but we have our own goals. Our own success is our biggest motivation.
Levi: Yeah, I’m one of those people that’s just always wanted more. As soon as I finish something, I ask myself what’s next? That’s my biggest mantra. How can I do more and more?
How did you end up meeting and working with Drake?
Levi: We went to the same high school but at different times. He was older than us and we just missed him. We were even in the same program, which is crazy when we look back. We had mutual friends and for his 26th birthday we hosted his birthday dinner. After that night he sorta became a regular at the restaurant and we just clicked. We had the same interests and tastes and then we started traveling together. Everywhere we went we were always eating out. Our nights would start and end at a restaurant. We didn’t even do clubs. It was just dinner and conversation and that’s how Fring’s came about. It made sense to create something in Toronto like those moments. At the time there was nothing like an all-night dining atmosphere. We wanted to create something that was a bit more elevated than a regular restaurant but not as turnt as a nightclub.
Have you made plans to work together in the future — maybe in the states?
Levi: We’ve talked about it for a bit. Nothing’s concrete but it’s a huge goal to expand our business. It’s a no-brainer. How many restaurants can we have in Toronto? Down south of the border would a big achievement.
Do you think social media has influenced the way we eat and dress?
Kai: I think they’re connected by trends. Everything happens so quickly now and then it gets spat out even quicker. You can go to a party and see guy dressed exactly the same. Just like food. There was the Mexican food trend, then burgers, then ramen, and now it’s sushi. Even the way food is plated is now trendy. There’s a restaurant in Copenhagen called Noma and it’s all about earth to table style cooking. They set the tone for farm-to-table dining. Everything is asymmetrical and earthy. That’s the wave everyone’s on right now.
Levi: Just like fashion, food is a business. A lot of it is branding and a way for people to get their name out there. I’ve seen so many dishes posted on Instagram that make me want to eat there. Even shopping experiences have changed food. Kith’s ice cream drives so much business. Kai was just in Miami for Art Basel and was telling about Chrome Hearts opening a candy store. If you’re not shopping, you're eating.
Fring’s recently sold out of limited release of apparel. Do you hope to expand in fashion?
Kai: Levi and I have always been into fashion. Even when we were little. A few years ago I was on a plane and put up an Instagram post about making my own line. I did a few releases of jeans and hoodies but I didn’t consider how much work it was. We were in the process of opening Fring’s and I needed to focus on that. Right now, we both have a lot on our plate and fashion is an all-or-nothing world.
What’s one of your earliest fashion memories?
Kai: I’ve always been obsessed with Nike. When I was young there was one point when that’s all I wore. All I wanted were Nike tennis clothes. I’ll never forget these pair of shoes called Implosions. All the tennis pros wore them and I was obsessed. I’ve been trying to find them in my size for the past three years. They’re so random and no one knows what they are.
Favorite places to shop?
Kai: Hands down, SSENSE. Their stock is insane and they always have my size. You can’t fucking beat them. I don’t care what store you’re looking at, no one has better inventory than them.
Kai: We’re opening up a new concept in Toronto. It’s a grab-and-go in a food court. We’ve always done full service dinners and this is pretty new for us. We open in a few months and that’s what we’ve been working on recently.
Levi: And more vlogs. We never had aspirations of being YouTubers but it’s been a way to grow our brand. We’ve got more stuff coming for our subscribers and some special projects we can’t really talk about yet. Stay tuned!
Next up; meet the man training models and actors at NYC’s most instagrammed gym.