Even though I grew up in the States, ours was a very Chinese household. We only ate Chinese food: My mother would make steamed fish or stir fried pork with tomatoes and eggs, and we always used black beans. Looking back, it was a very flavorful childhood. But it was not until age 11, when I went to work with my uncle, that my horizons about food in general opened up. My uncle owned one of the best restaurants in Chicago's Chinatown.
How I started working with him is a funny story: I was caught shoplifting at age ten and, because my father had died when I was eight months old, my uncle said, "I'll take care of him, I'll put him to work." So that's how I first began to work in the restaurant business. My uncle taught me how to work. He was very organized, had a very clean kitchen, and was much more of a restaurateur than a chef himself, but he knew good food. And at that time—we're talking about the 60s—he traveled often to places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, because you couldn't get into mainland China. He would learn about food and tell the chefs how to do something. He was an amazing guy, my uncle Paul. I spent about four years working in his restaurant growing up.
Today, in the age of the celebrity chef, being a chef is different. It's good that people can make a decent living at it, but at the same time, young people should know what it takes to actually get somewhere. It's not merely appearing on television and showmanship—it's having a passion for cooking and constantly learning about things that are associated with it. You know, food is broader than just cooking. It involves the environment, it involves political and social themes. One of the charities I work with is Action Against Hunger. I don't think anybody should be hungry in today's world—it's ridiculous. Because I can cook, I can use my skills to help. So, it's not merely about being a famous chef. It's about where you fit in this world and how you can make this world a better place. That's just as important as being successful. As a patron at Oxford University, I mentor students in their hospitality program and try to teach them social values.
After all, you really cannot talk about food without also talking about social mores. In the past, in Hong Kong, every banquet you would go to, they used to have shark fins. And now, we know that sharks are endangered and not only that—it's extremely cruel to cut off their fins and leave them half dead. So people have stopped eating them—it's about being socially conscious. And this is the kind of thing that, as an educator, I'm really interested in.
Chinese food has evolved so much since the 1980s and people's palates have evolved immensely. When you go to places like Hong Kong, you really see how Chinese food has evolved. People in China are beginning to find food interesting and glamorous. You have people with mega money, people who are willing to spend on something that's very good. It's funny—in Beijing, somebody even has a restaurant serving Chinese-American food! It's a novelty.
The ingredients that are available in China have also come a long way. When I first went to China, I was honestly appalled at the quality of cooking. But recently, I did a series on China, and I was amazed at the quality of the cooking. In 40 years, China has changed so drastically—socially and food-wise as well as economically. You have to remember, you can't be making good food when the country is poor. And now they have a rising and very strong middle class—and that's the force behind the changes going on.
Culinary education has also really changed over the years, with the internet and people traveling. I think it's pretty great. When somebody has great food, they post it—and information is good when it's positive. People ask themselves questions when they see posts on Instagram and think, Oh, that looks really interesting. It's instantaneous these days, and I think it keeps chefs on their toes. In my generation, we couldn't even go to China until the 80s. My first time was in 1983. Now, anybody can go and travel and see everything. I mean, I thought I was so cool when I got a fax machine! Things have taken a quantum leap—especially for chefs.
I don't very much like the idea of signature dishes, but if I had one, it would probably be Peking duck. I've made a lot of that—probably 35,000 ducks over the years. All in all, though, over my career I have learned that simpler is better. It's not how much you put on something, it's about what you can take away. All these people embellish things—they don't need to do that. You don't need to transform something when your basic ingredients are fantastic. I always loved how Julia Child said, "I can't stand to have my food palmed over." I agree with her. Good food should be really simple—when you overcomplicate a dish, there are too many things going on and you don't know what the focus is. I regard myself as a teacher more than anything and this is what I try to teach. Less is more.
All in all, the status of Chinese food, especially in the States, has changed drastically over the years. I've been in this business since 1971, and I've been cooking for about 57 or 58 years. My BBC show began in 1982. I grew up when being a chef was something you didn't want to do—becoming a chef meant you failed at school, you couldn't do anything, so you had better get a job in a kitchen! It used to be that Chinese food was thought of as cheap and dirty—it has never had the cachet of Japanese, for instance, or French or Italian. But I think that's changing. People are looking at Chinese food or Asian food in general as being modern and different.
I'm very optimistic about the future.
As told to Alex Swerdloff.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.