Ken Hom Interview
By: PP Wong
"My heritage and the values I have learnt from my Chinese mum. To be oneself and to be humble at all times. She taught me to always remember where I came from as well as our poor background. And to be proud of my Chinese heritage."
Ken Hom OBE is arguably the most famous Asian chef in the world. He is author to more than 20 award-winning cook books that have sold millions of copies in over 30 countries. In an exclusive interview with BW we discover a man who is passionate about helping others and being a positive influence in the culinary world.
Hom was recently selected as an ambassador for the GREAT Britain campaign in recognition of his personal support and contribution to the UK.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
Chili and garlic
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Passionate, loving and sharing
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
You’ve travelled the world, been on TV and have bestselling cook books. Yet, you still seem to be a down to earth gentleman. What keeps you grounded?
My heritage and the values I have learnt from my Chinese mum. To be oneself and to be humble at all times. She taught me to always remember where I came from as well as our poor background. And to be proud of my Chinese heritage.
How do you decide which recipes go into the final cook book and which ones are left out?
I never put in recipes in my books that I don’t like. I always try to pick a variety as I try to make them as easy to make as possible. It is important home cooks are able to make the dish. A good and successful recipe is what makes cookery books best sellers. I always test each recipe, this is a must.
I often have friends who also test them for me and I value their feedback.
I think the introduction to the recipes are vital, as they entice people to make the dish and I like to give a bit of history of how I came across the recipe.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a culinary writer?
Travel and eat in as many homes and restaurants as possible.
Be open to different cuisines and learn about the cultures of those cuisines.
Be brave, try anything!
You once shared that when you leave this earth, you will leave all your money to charity. What made you decide to do this?
One arrives in this world with nothing and we leave with nothing.
So I want my money to make this a better world when I am gone.
You are one of the most well recognized Asian chefs in the world. What do you like to do away from the spotlight in your down time?
I lead a very normal life. I love to cook and eat and often entertain. It gives me great pleasure.
If I could take more time off, I would spend three months in Beijing and learn Mandarin (I speak Cantonese) or three months in Tokyo to learn Japanese. Of course, the time will also be a complete submersion in food, wine or sake and culture!
The negative stereotypes about Chinese takeaways are that the food is unhealthy and often has MSG in it. When you started out as a Chinese chef did you have to fight against these stereotypes?
I always have tried to stress the positives of Asian culture. Instead of trying to go against negative images, I do the opposite. That is why I think it is important to explain how something is made but where it comes from, the history of say Peking duck. I think it has helped because before I became a TV presenter and writer, I was first and foremost, a teacher. Also, I have a passion to share my culture with others. I remember students from the California Culinary Academy, after a one-week seminar with me on Chinese cooking came away with a positive impression of a great cuisine which they previously thought as cheap grub.
Your recipes are often tied to stories and some of them are linked to memories of the past. For you, which recipe tells the most memorable story?
Perhaps the story of how my mum made my favourite comfort food: Chinese sausages steamed with rice and topped with a fried egg drizzled with oyster sauce. The combination evokes memory of not only my mum but the taste of the pork fat melting into the rice, the crispness of the egg with the yolk bursting with its richness and melding with the saltiness of the oyster sauce. It is a heavenly combination that is forever in my memory.
The punchline of the above story is to always write from your heart and taste memory.
What was the best meal you ever had and why?
This is almost impossible to answer as I have had so many good meals.
It could be a simple won-ton soup in a rich clear broth eaten in a street stall or sitting outside in Singapore or in a three star restaurant in Paris. When I die, I can say I have had countless great meals and some of them have been in homes... not only is the food good, but the company, wine, etc.
It is a whole experience. Eating is part of socializing as well.
What does the word success mean to you?
Success means that I can now help make a difference. People listen to what I say, so then I have a responsibility to say the right thing and to use the power of my success to motivate and help all sorts of causes.
What is the next recipe in Ken Hom’s life?
My latest book is on truffles.
I have just signed on to write my memoirs of my life in food which will be fun.
Also, I have been very busy with my restaurant MEE at the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
All this is in addition to my heavy work load for charities. But it keeps me out of trouble! BW