Luxury London catches up with chef Ken Hom, the Godfather of Cantonese Cooking, on the eve of the year of the monkey, to talk celebratory food, traditions and what lies ahead
Ken Hom has attended his fair share of Chinese New Year festivities, his earliest memories of the big celebration awash with lion dances in Chicago’s Chinatown, red envelopes filled with money and, of course, huge, lavish banquets filled with traditional foods and ruled by custom.
Now aged 66 and a celebrated international chef, Ken has written more than twenty cookbooks, worked as a consultant for hotels and restaurants all over the world and cooked for presidents, celebrities and royalty – though his early childhood remains the defining characteristic of his Chinese – and culinary – identity.
Born in Tucson, Arizona and raised in Chicago’s Chinese quarter, his mother was widowed when he was just eight months old, meaning that his early years were spent fully immersed in the support network of relatives and neighbours. “I think that living in Chicago’s Chinatown and seeing only Chinese people made me feel very Chinese,” he tells me. “I did not speak English until I was six years old, so until then I spoke only Chinese, ate Chinese food and thought the whole universe was Chinese! I even saw only Chinese films, and I was ten before I saw my first English movie. My family was very typically Chinese, and my uncles – related and distant – were very protective of me and my mother, I guess because my father had died; and at least once a week we had an extended family meal together.”
“I did not speak English until I was six years old, so until then I spoke only Chinese, ate Chinese food and thought the whole universe was Chinese!"
At the age of eleven, Ken began working in the kitchen at his uncle’s Chinese restaurant – a job which, ironically, he hated (“I thought it was slavery!”) – although he admits he enjoyed the idea of cooking. “At eleven you are never sure,” he explains, laughing as he adds “But then I love eating which made me interested in cooking. In my case, natural talent comes from greed.”
Despite this fledgling interest, it was history of art which he chose to study when he left Chicago for the University of California, Berkeley; although he did help to pay his way through college by giving cooking classes at weekends, first – somewhat bizarrely – teaching Italian cuisine, then later returning to his roots and switching to Chinese dishes.
From then on, his culinary career was on a clear and unwavering upward trajectory. In 1977 he was invited to join San Francisco’s new California Culinary Academy as an instructor and, in 1982, after a two-year global search, the BBC auditioned him for a Chinese cookery series. The result was the hugely successful Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery and its companion cookbook, which soon became one of the best-selling cookbooks ever published by BBC Books, selling more than 1.5 million copies.
In the thirty years since, Ken has well and truly conquered the culinary world with his charisma and expertise, appearing in numerous cooking series for the BBC which have been broadcast throughout the world, as well as a five-hour documentary on the history of the noodle for Korean network KBS which was sold to 23 different countries and even won the prestigious Peabody award in 2010.
Most recently, Ken was seen co-presenting the 2012 BBC series Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure, in which he travelled across China and explored its food traditions with British-Taiwanese food writer and TV chef Ching-He Huang.
Like Chinese all over the world, for Ken and his family the Lunar New Year festival is an annual highlight of noise and colour, celebration and tradition, with children earning red envelopes filled with money each time they wish an adult ‘happy new year’ (“Which certainly made my fortune for the year when I was a child!” Ken chuckles) and homes adorned with red decorations symbolising happiness, wealth and fortune.
For Ken and his family the Lunar New Year festival is an annual highlight of noise and colour, celebration and tradition.
But perhaps Chinese New Year’s most enduring, all-pervading and emblematic characteristic is, nevertheless, its food, with an ethos that sees families gathering for days on end to talk, laugh and catch up over spread upon spread of traditional dishes as mouth-watering as they are colourful.
When I ask Ken how he celebrates Chinese New Year (which begins on 8 February in 2016), his answer comes quickly and in perfect endorsement of this theory: “By eating”. “I still celebrate now just as I did when I was a child,” he says “with my close friends and family, with a wonderful Chinese banquet. We eat some of my favourite dishes, like sea moss with dried oysters, steamed fish (for prosperity), crispy chicken (to bring fortune), dumplings and noodles (for longevity, so you never cut the noodles) and duck, a symbol of fidelity. I’ve spent the New Year in many different countries, but my favourite is definitely the UK. The Brits are so interested in the concept of Chinese New Year and always celebrate in style.”
"The Brits are so interested in the concept of Chinese New Year and always celebrate in style.”
Although now semi-retired, Ken divides his time between France (where he has had a home since 1986), Bangkok and Rio de Janeiro – where he supervises his Michelin starred restaurant, Mee, at the Copacabana Palace Hotel – while overseeing promotion of his world-famous Ken Hom wok (of which he has sold an incredible seven million in 62 countries), writing his memoirs and developing his latest venture: a range of cooking sauces, ready-cooked noodles and rice developed in collaboration with British supermarket chain Tesco.
Although he insists that his dominant characteristic as one born in the year of the ox is a keen knack for “stubbornness”, I’m more inclined to side with the classically accepted attributes of honesty, ambitiousness and reliability. Ken comes across as instantly open and modest – and if earning a nickname like the Godfather of Cantonese Cooking doesn’t point to an ambitious streak, I don’t know what does.