Ken Hom: Our Interview
Ken Hom: Our Interview
When it comes to Chinese cooking, Ken Hom is regarded as culinary royalty. From an early age, Ken immersed himself in incredible food environments. After working at his uncle’s restaurant from the age of 11 years, and going on to study the history of art, Ken began to understand just how interconnected culture, travel, and cuisine really are.
In this issue of Unforgettable Travel Magazine, we catch up with Ken Hom to talk about his career as an international chef, and to find out which destinations influenced his culinary creativity. In a world of global connectivity, Chinese food has become accessible to everyone, and has flourished like no other popular cuisine.
You no longer have to travel to one place for a particular cuisine. Outside China, the award-winning chef tells us that London, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Taipei are some of the best cities for exceptional Chinese cuisine.
From owning a restaurant in Rio de Janeiro, to now living in the Thai capital of Bangkok, his foodie ventures have taken Ken across the world. Today, while Ken still loves being behind the wok, he is committed to tackling the more serious issues of food: hunger and malnutrition, and is an ambassador for Action Against Hunger UK – an international charity whose primary aim is to save the lives of malnourished children.
Ken, you pioneered the introduction of Asian cooking into Western culture. Do you feel we have now fully embraced this way of cooking, or do you feel there are still areas we are yet to explore?
Within my lifetime, travel has become more possible and more popular. There were once places you could only read about in books, and cuisines you only imagined tasting. Today, travel is imminent and with such accessibility, we are seeing and experiencing countries we only dreamt about. You can now visit the birthplace of Asian cuisine. Asian cooking is now part of the fabric of world cooking. I remember when I presented my first BBC series in 1984. Back then, many of the Asian ingredients I wanted to cook with were not widely available. Today, you can find them in almost every supermarket. We are now part of a global world – a more connected one that teaches us exciting cultures and cuisines.
What are your top tips on cooking Asian food?
Without sounding too cliché – practice, practice, and more practice. The first time you cook a new dish, I’d recommend you read the instructions on recipes very carefully and take your time. Only once you have mastered a recipe, can you start to experiment. A second tip I would give is to spend time carefully preparing all of your ingredients. Compared to other cuisines, Asian cooking requires a much longer preparation time, but a much faster cooking time. And one final tip is to heat up your wok before you add the oil. A hot wok means your food will get that smoky, grilled flavour which is a hallmark of Asian cooking. Oh, and above all, enjoy the process and don’t panic.
Do you think exotic food tastes much better in their indigenous locations and if so, why?
Yes and no. A huge aspect of travel, and one of the reasons it is so loved and enjoyable, is eating local food in that setting. You have the environment, people and atmosphere around you so, of course, it adds to the overall experience. That said, if you are able to master a great Asian dish – such as a good stir-fried dish – it can be as delicious, and just as enjoyable as the one you had when you were in Asia.
Your restaurant – Mee Restaurant in Rio de Janeiro – was awarded a Michelin Star in its first and second year of being open. What made you open a restaurant in one of Brazil’s most popular cities?
I had been a guest at the Copacabana Palace Hotel for a number of years as I loved the city. I had many friends, including one of the best chefs – Claude Troisgros – living in Rio de Janeiro, which was always a reason to visit, but the city doesn’t need a sole reason for you to visit. There used to be a nightclub by the pool which attracted a rather loud crowd. When the management decided to change the concept, they asked me to come up with an idea. That is when MEE was created. MEE is a Pan-Asian restaurant featuring the best dishes from across the Asian continent. Eight months after opening, we were awarded a Michelin star. I was a proud consultant chef for MEE until my retirement a few years ago.
Whilst travelling have you ever been shocked/surprised by a destination?
Bora Bora exceeded my expectations. The sparkling, clear water filled with colourful fish was truly magical. This was also the same with Mauritius. I was surprised at how jaw-dropping the landscape was, and how good the food was there. The mixture and variety of people – from Chinese to Indian to French – is what makes the food in Mauritius so exceptional. It’s a real fusion, filled with delicious flavours and spices. Almost every dish was infused with aromatic spices that were local to the island. I was so impressed by some of the Indian dishes – some of which I had never eaten before. I travelled there over 35 years ago so it’s hard to remember the names of specific dishes, but I would go back in a heartbeat.
What is the furthest you have travelled, specifically for food?
A Japanese island called Hokkaido. It was a seafood haven and every meal was incredibly special.
At what point did you realise that you wanted to be a chef?
Funnily enough, I never wanted to be a chef. However, after working for five years in my uncle’s restaurant from the age of 11, I started to teach cooking and fell in love with it. Unintentionally, I found my dream. While many people may think that a ‘chef’ is just one occupation, it’s far from reality. I spent some time cooking in many ‘pop-up restaurants’ but after two weeks doing this, I convinced myself I did not want to be a chef.
On the other hand, cooking in restaurants is the best! In the 80’s and 90’s, I did two-week stints called food promotions. In other words, I would take over the Veranda restaurant at the Peninsula in Hong Kong or Lord Jim restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok. For these two weeks, they would exclusively serve my menu with my dishes. This was excellent experience and really influenced my decision to become a chef.
You studied the history of art. How do you think art and cuisine inter-relate?
A huge amount. This study is all about social history which informs history of art and thus cooking. Essentially, we are what we eat. It is always fascinating to trace progress of dishes from the beginning and to see how they have changed with history. For example, many of the basic stir-fried dishes have evolved and changed over the years. Adaptation is the key word especially for Chinese food. It is what has enabled Chinese cuisine to flourish everywhere and become accessible to everyone.
You have adopted Bangkok as one of your homes, what attracted you to the city?
I first cooked here at the legendary Oriental in 1990, and immediately fell in love with the food, people and culture. Local Thai peoples’ smiles and warm hearts were so welcoming, and their food is out of this world. Of course, the wonderful tropical climate and beautiful landscape also adds to the attraction – I love it here.
And where do you go to eat in Bangkok?
Many places! Some of my favourites include Nonna Nella by Lenzi, Four Seasons, Chef Man, Have a Zeed, La Monita Taqueria, Peppina, The Ninth Café, Laem Charen Seafood, Paste, Xinn Tien Dj, Gianni, Baan Klang Nam, Ruen Urai, Water Library Central Embassy, Maison Saigon, Izakaya Teppen, Hong Bao Central Embassy, Baan Glom Gig and so many more!
Read the full interview in Issue 4
To read the full interview with Chef Ken Hom, please read our latest issue of Unforgettable Travel Magazine: Food and Wine. Ken Hom OBE is an ambassador for Action Against Hunger UK. His autobiography ‘My Stir Fried Life’ is available on Amazon and all good bookshops.
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