Ken Hom Wants You to Know That He’s a Teacher, Not a Celebrity Chef

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Ken Hom Wants You to Know That He’s a Teacher, Not a Celebrity Chef

Despite being one of the most recognisable faces in British food, the Chinese chef isn’t doing it for the fame. “I’m most proud of being a teacher,” he says. “I hate this kind of thing: celebrity chefs. It gives false hope for young chefs—all they want...

"Sugar is cheap, all the companies use it and it's criminal," says Ken Hom, when asked about the tax on sweetened soft drinks announced in George Osborne's recent UK budget. "It's literally killing us and making us fat. I would prefer there be more marijuana out there. Marijuana should be legalised and regulated, with the money used to fund the NHS."

Hom, 66, was conceived in China, born in the US, and now lives mainly in Thailand and France. Today he is talking to me in Beijing, where he is preparing a showcase meal based on French truffles for around 70 guests. Despite his globally zig-zagging background, interests, and work schedule, it is in Britain where he is most beloved and influential.

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Having popularised Chinese wok cooking in the UK in the 1980s, Hom has earned the right to let loose about food issues there.

"Children need to be taught more about food at school, too," he says. "Basic nutritional values so they understand what they are putting into their bodies."

READ MORE: The MUNCHIES Guide to British Food

Throughout our talk, Hom returns to this notion of learning. He describes himself as a teacher above all else—particularly above the modern concept of "celebrity chef," despite him being a famous face among UK television audiences. Aired at a time before most UK cookery shows resembled game shows, Hom's 1984 debut series Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery sparked a passion for Chinese cooking in the UK that still sizzles today.

"It was about teaching people not only about a cuisine, but how to use this funny-looking utensil," he says. "It hit a nerve. People thought I was doing tricks because the cooking was so quick. The producer said: 'You have to slow down—we have another 28 minutes to kill.'"

Partly to eat up broadcast time between quickfire wok demonstrations, Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery included segments filmed in Hong Kong. He showed teeming markets, shops laden with utensils alien to the UK, and a culture its people had little exposure to. It made the show much more than a moving-image recipe book.

It made the wok a household item and Ken Hom a household name.

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American-born chef Ken Hom. Photo courtesy Ken Hom.

"This was a time when Chinese food was made for the British public—you'd go to a Chinese takeaway and get curry and chips," remembers Hom with a giggle. "We were showing what authentic Chinese cookery was. For the first episode, we showed how to make Peking duck. People were astonished, they didn't know any kind of duck aside from crispy duck."

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The show's popularity lit up a cooking culture shift in the UK that makes our current The Great British Bake Off obsession seem like small fry in comparison. Woks became the year's must-have item, flying off shelves where previously they gathered dust. After the Peking duck episode, supermarkets couldn't keep up with duck demand. Hom launched his own range of woks, selling around eight million to date worldwide, with one in seven UK households owning one today. The Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery cookbook has sold millions and is still in print.

It was a far cry from Hom's beginnings as the son of poor Chinese immigrants to the US. The chef learned to cook using a wok he describes as "bigger than me," in a restaurant owned by his uncle.

Later, when studying History of Art at the University of California in Berkeley, Hom hosted Italian cookery classes before teaching at the California Culinary Academy. Having published his first cookbook in 1981, his TV break came after Indian food writer and actress Madhur Jaffrey, credited with bringing Indian cuisine to the west, recommended him to the BBC.

But it wasn't until 1999, after Hom had enjoyed sustained success through further books and TV shows such as Ken Hom's Hot Wok, that he got approval from his mother. She wanted him to pursue a conventional career, but was won over when she saw photos of her son with Tony Blair on the front page of Chinese newspapers. Hom had been invited to cook for the then-Prime Minister.

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Hom—already welcomed into the arms of the British public—had been welcomed by the establishment. He cooked for the Queen and Prince Charles as well as Blair and his wife, Cherie.

"I've been offered an enormous amount of money to do I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! They raise it every year and I say, 'No! No! No!' Why would I do it?'"

"Tony Blair's sister-in-law is Hong Kong Chinese," he says. "He loves Chinese food. He was very interested in China because Hong Kong had been given back to China when he was Prime Minister. You talk to these people over dinner and wine but you don't talk about certain things, like politics, to be polite. When the Prime Minister is switched off like that, he wants to have a good time and talk about food."

Hom says he was an outspoken "long-haired hippy" in his youth, attending protests against the Vietnam War in the US in the 1970s. His hair has long-since departed but much of this outspoken nature remains—albeit not during dinners with state leaders.

Of his chef peers in Britain he rates the likes of Delia Smith and Rick Stein most highly, calling them fellow "teachers." He admires Jamie Oliver for his work with children's diets but despises the notion of the celebrity chef.

"I'm most proud of being a teacher," he says. "I hate this kind of thing: celebrity chefs. It gives false hope for young chefs—all they want to be is a star. It's about how you manage your talent. I've been offered an enormous amount of money to do I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! They raise it every year and I say, 'No! No! No!' Why would I do it?'"

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Doesn't he fancy eating kangaroo testicles with faded reality TV stars?

"Well, I'd know how to cook one," he says. "That's why they want me in there."

Hom's integrity has contributed to his continued popularity, as have intelligently commissioned TV shows like the 2012 BBC series Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure. Co-presented with Taiwan-born chef Ching He Huang, the pair travelled around China exploring cooking styles. Their friendship came across warmly, with Hom playing the role of the fatherly cooking master as he was introduced to a generation of younger viewers.

An afternoon in Hom's company, watching him calmly direct a kitchen of chefs speaking various languages as they stir up truffle-based delicacies, gives further insight into his popularity. He has the perma-positive patter of a confidence guru but none of the smarm. The recurring grin seen on his book covers is ever-present in real life.

I could almost see Hom creating a new genre of food-based self-help books, should he ever get bored with recipes.

"If we could better show through food that people can understand each other more, we wouldn't be fighting each other so much," he says. "We wouldn't be wasting our time bombing people. We should all sit down and eat together; share each other's food. It's my formula for world peace."

These cockle-warming words are somewhat reminiscent of that Streets song about getting world leaders to take ecstasy together. But don't expect to see them written down anywhere else other than in this article.

"I don't put all this in my books because I don't want to be like Tom Cruise, [preaching] scientology—Kentology," says Hom. He is releasing his memoirs later this year though, and says he will dedicate them to the British public.

"I do think food is so important to happiness," he adds. "A lot of great food and wine has passed through my body, so I'm ready for the other world."

Illustration by Jane Kim.

For more iconic chefs, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.