There have been a series of defining moments in my life – I think of them as my food aha! moments – which sub-consciously led me to TV cookery.
My first was the zong-zi (bamboo-wrapped sticky rice dumpling) that my grandmother taught me to make when I was five, sitting on her knee on our farm in Taiwan. My family’s move to South Africa brought with it so many new experiences. Johannesburg only had one Chinese supermarket, and I spent almost every weekend in there helping Mum buy her supplies of tinned abalone and rice wine and search for other ingredients… She was that obsessed! I didn’t complain because every visit meant mouth-watering lunch boxes at school the following week, which made all my friends enviable. This Chinese child was validated at school through food.
''This Chinese child was validated at school through food''
A few years later, another move – this time to the UK when I was 11 – would push my culinary experiences even further. Financial circumstances took my mother to work back in Taiwan while my father stayed with my brother and I so we could finish our schooling.
Now my father was a terrible cook, although he could just about make rice and fried eggs. So I was trained by my mother to cook for him before she went travelling abroad each time. Cooking was fun at first, then started to become a chore and a burden, so while my skills improved – from watery fried rice to the proper stuff – my love for doing it declined.
''They were the most boring expensive noodles I’d ever had…and arrogantly I thought I could do better!''
The passion was reignited when my mother finally returned to London in 1999. I was about to graduate from university and I had a decision to make – either work in a bank in the City or find something else to do. By chance I walked into Prêt a Manger and they were selling noodle salads for £3.50 a box. All that box had in it was wheat flour noodles, beansprouts, sesame seeds and a pack of soy sauce.
Faced with the opportunity of working for myself or working for a bank (I couldn’t think of anything worse – sorry bankers), I decided to start a catering company based on the sole idea of that Taiwanese noodle salad. During the finals of my exams I went hunting for clients. I approached Prêt, Benjy’s and Europa Foods. I was unsuccessful with Prêt (must have been karma) but started working with Europa and then Benjy’s as well.
From £500, a phone call to the buyer, labels from Kall-Kwik, ingredients and bento box packaging from Wing Yip, my homemade “cool noodle” salad samples were created. And the rest, as they say, is history. It’s been a rollercoaster of a journey – from my catering company with failed products and successful products, through to TV cooking, live cooking on TV, cookbook writing and making over restaurants.
I’ve also done filming in America and Asia, and I’ve even had an Emmy nomination for one of my shows… It’s been quite an adventure and all from a few little ‘a-ha! moments’. So my advice is, never underestimate where experiences like that can lead you…Run rabbit run!