Cantonese restaurant

The “skipped life” of the great chef Ken Hom

There is a running joke throughout “My Stir-Fried Life”, the light and entertaining autobiography of Ken Hom, a well-known advocate of Chinese cuisine through some 36 books, TV documentaries, personalized cookware and Moreover.

Now 72, with a bald dome and wrinkle folds resembling a Shar-Pei puppy, Hom looks suspiciously like the Dalai Lama – and is often mistaken for him at airports. And, just like this great Asian sage, this caterer to kings and celebrities is preparing for his own demise by depriving himself of his worldly possessions – in his case, the product of culinary fame.

Having recently donated his library of nearly 3,000 cookbooks to students at the UK University of Oxford Brookes, an institution separate from the University of Oxford, he is now thinking, “Humility is a word. key in my life. … Don’t take it too much. seriously. After all, we all know the end of the game, don’t we? So I’m offloading not only my possessions “- including, he admits, his designer wardrobe -” but making plans in the event of going out to give all I have. “

It won’t be so easy, given the luxurious lifestyle fueled by Hom’s unlikely rise from a humble immigrant to the United States, helping out at a family-owned Chicago Chinatown restaurant, creating menus to world-class heights and 10 Downing Street, the home of the British Prime Minister. – a tale of “rags to wealth” which could also be called “rags to meals”.

While continuing to advise numerous restaurants and hotel chains and enrich his rich heritage of cookbooks, Hom alternates between apartments in Bangkok and Paris (near the brilliant “butchers of rue Lepic”, as he calls it). When in the UK, where he thinks the food scene is vastly underrated, he frequents the Dorchester Hotel in London’s upscale Mayfair.

Today he spends his summers in his finest treasure: a lovingly restored medieval watchtower, built in the 1300s with foundations dating back to 1185, in the charming village of Catus in southwestern France . Transformed in a decade of work after being rightfully found by a supplier of truffles, the house and its well-equipped kitchen have hosted celebrities ranging from Tony Blair to Tina Turner. Its ancient stone walls are dotted with Buddhas and elephants which bear witness to the owner’s dual cultural loyalty.

But Hom’s witty tale of his “skipped life” begins in a very distant setting. Born in Tucson, Arizona, and raised after the death of his migrant father at the age of eight months by a strict single mother who spoke only Cantonese, young Wing Fei (Glorious Son) did not know a word of English. when it entered the school in Chicago. He was dyslexic and then had to travel long distances in the city’s cold winter climate to continue his education. But the learning that would serve him the most was acquired by working in the back of the King Wah, a Chinese restaurant where his uncle Paul paid him 75 cents an hour.

An adventurous spirit, fueled by the hippie culture of the 1960s and a voracious appetite for new flavors and new people, led him to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he quickly fell in with the crowd of bon vivant. creating New California Cuisine and dropped out of art history to found the Ken Hom Cooking School at his home in Berkeley, site of California’s main university.

The rest is history, and if there’s something difficult about this easy read, it’s removing a natural pile of envy from the turns of luck and networking that helped Hom on his path.

Hom’s Summer Retreat is a lovingly restored medieval watchtower in the village of Catus in southwestern France. (Courtesy of Ken Hom)

First published in the West almost five years ago, Hom’s inspirational saga is only now reaching many Asian readers thanks to translations into Thai and Mandarin. As the author points out, some revisions have been made to reflect what is “relevant to each of these countries”. For example, he says, Thais and Chinese “don’t know or care who Julia Child (the late chief of American television) is.” In his book, he cites Child as the first and greatest influence on her growing appreciation of non-Chinese dishes, and reveals several lunches in which she recounted her service during WWII with the US Office of Strategic Services, the precursor. of the Central Intelligence Agency, in the Chinese province of Yunnan.

For the Thai version, he added new elements about how he ended up cooking at the prestigious Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, saying, “It’s the funny anecdotes that sell the book!” There are plenty of such stories throughout the book, which are also complemented by a handful of recipes that are relevant to places and events.

In addition to his obvious passion for food – and eating at some of the best establishments in the world – he is an insightful observer and diligent storyteller, recounting many encounters with the rich and famous. A world-class dropper, he not only gives a behind-the-scenes look at fellow foodies like Craig Claiborne, James Beard and Jeremiah Tower, but has also shared chopsticks with Danny Kaye, Elton John, British Prince Charles and the former Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.

It was following an accidental meeting with Indian TV chef and actress Madhur Jaffrey that he was recommended to host the BBC’s very first Chinese cooking series, “Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery “, which premiered in 1983. The series shot its” Only in America “. “in an essentially” made in Britain “hit.

Hom may drop some of the biggest names, including Britain’s Prince Charles, seen here in 2019, and Zhu Rongji, who was China’s premier when this photo was taken in 1998. (Photo above AP, photo below Reuters )

The BBC tried their luck with a broadcasting novice and expected small audiences. But Hom’s introductory course on woks and dim sum (Chinese steamed buns and dumplings) exponentially broadened the recognition of Chinese cuisine in Britain, and the cookbook that has it. accompanies broke records with a first printing of 350,000 copies. It remains printed. His first show was extended to five other series.

Obviously, Hom’s success isn’t just about his American English, his infectious smile, and his overwhelming appetite. His enthusiasm made him a natural communicator for his pride in Chinese cuisine, reinforced by subsequent stays in Hong Kong and mainland China, where his latest BBC show, the award-winning “Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure” , involved 5,000 miles of travel. tracking down the specialties of his homeland. He always enjoys the role of a global educator, saying, “Every dish has a story that I love to tell!

Even if he has tasted exalted gastronomic heights, the dishes he offers are quite simple to prepare. And he insists his favorite dishes are “simple comfort food made with love.” He cites Cantonese pressed duck, the ubiquitous but ingenuous specialty hung in many Chinatown windows around the world, as a signature dish and – avoiding the temptation to be elaborate – is not above prescribing means to create the Perfect fried rice, hot pepper shrimp or chicken bean sauce.

The cover of the Thai edition of “My Stir-Fried Life”.

Even though he continues with a website blog from his Watchtower home, his advice is for simple dishes made with leftover bread or baguettes, and he’s packed with suggestions for using and storing ingredients. . “I not only try to work on behalf of many charities that I believe in, but to put into practice what I preach,” he says from France. “For example, I try to never waste a single piece of food. Food waste is not only morally wrong, but also bad for the environment.”

Among his many causes, he says he has raised up to 11 million pounds ($ 14.8 million) for the charity Action Against Hunger, which works in 40 countries to reduce poverty and promote sustainable lives. After battling prostate cancer, he gave his support to raising awareness of the disease in the UK.

Closer to his interests, he became a founding patron of Oxford Gastronomica, which from 2007 to 2017 was an Oxford Brookes-based institute for culinary and cultural studies. Today, he is part of a unique think tank, the Oxford Cultural Collective, which conducts master classes that expand knowledge on everything from Palestinian cuisine to the basics of restaurant management. Its creation of the Ken Hom-Lee Kum Kee Fellowship annually funds four promising British culinary researchers who travel to Hong Kong to deepen their exposure to Chinese cuisine.

As this culinary ambassador puts it, “Food is even more important in the post-COVID world because, hopefully… our food unites us rather than dividing us. Perhaps it will give us a new perspective on the food that ‘it should be heartwarming and … that every culture and ethnicity can contribute something to share. “

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.