Ken Hom on roast pork, optimism and meeting his food hero

The legendary chef grew up working in his uncle’s restaurant in Chicago and began teaching cookery as a student in California. As Ken marks the 40th anniversary of his BBC TV series Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery, he recalls opening a bottle with Elizabeth David, reveals his dinner table peeve – and revels in the allure of roast pork.

Ken Hom on roast pork, optimism and meeting his food hero

Tell us about your life growing up…

I was so skinny as a child because we were quite poor. I grew up in Chicago’s Chinatown and worked in restaurants when I was young. In immigrant families, you cling to your heritage – that’s how you form a bond and feel protected. But then you confront the place you’ve been born into, and it’s a good way of learning and developing. I love the way immigrants enrich the culture. I remember when I first came to London in 1971, Chinese restaurants served curry and chips. I’d say, “That’s not Chinese.” They don’t have to do that anymore, and I love that.

Listening to music on a transistor radio helped my English a lot. It was when I to The Beatles and so on. I think music is like food. It’s a gateway into other cultures. We should all share our music, our food, our language. The world is better then. As The Beatles sang, ‘All you need is love’. I used to enjoy dancing too, but I’m 74 now and I can’t burn up the floor like I used to!

What did you want to be when you were older?

I never had a goal in life. In other words, I never was someone who said, “I’m going to do this,” or “I want to do that.” I just sort of go with the flow. I sound like a hippy from the seventies. And I am! I always just flow with whatever is happening.

Where’s home to you now?

Home is not one place. It’s about being close to the people that you love. Home to me is everywhere. I travel a lot – Europe, China, UK – and think of many places as home.

What do you love cooking at this time of year?

I believe we should eat seasonally – why do we eat tomatoes in the middle of winter? I love seeing all the vegetables coming to fruition. When I was a student in France one of my favourite early summer dishes is what my Franco-Italian adoptive mother Bruna called a tian. She would take leftover rice, soak it in milk, mix it with sautéed courgette, garlic, parsley, butter and parmesan – and throw it in the oven. It was so good – even better cold the next day – and perfect with a cool glass of pinot grigio.

tian tart
Try our tart twist on tian


Do you have a bugbear?

People on their phones in restaurants drives me crazy. What about the food? What about conversation? I have a journalist friend and I confiscate her phone at dinner as she’s always looking at it. I say, “Are we boring you?”

Who’s your food hero?

Meeting Elizabeth David was like meeting a living legend. She and Julia Child were my introduction to French food, a gateway to heaven. Unfortunately, by the time I met her she was bedridden, so I went to talk to her in her bedroom. As we chatted, she reached under the bed and pulled out a bottle of champagne and asked if I’d be happy to share it! We talked about a lot of things and were gossiping a bit as well, and after a while I said “Miss David, you should rest now.” She said, “Nonsense, I’m having fun,” and pulled out another bottle… Sadly she passed away not very long after, but I was always grateful that I had the privilege of meeting her.

What’s your food weakness?

I love roast pig. The Chinese get it super crispy: most of the fat has melted and the meat is so tender you almost don’t need teeth. Every time I have it, I’ve died and gone to heaven.

Chinese pork
Chinese roast pork is hard to beat


Beyond food… What do you feel passionately about?

There’s one thing I really love about being older. It’s that I can now devote time to lots of charities, raising funds to help others. People have been so nice to me, given me so much – you can publish this: I’m bloody lucky! To me, it’s all about giving back.

What’s your top piece of life advice?

We come to this world with nothing and we’re going to leave with nothing. If you work from that premise, everything is fine. Enjoy every moment while you can. No matter who you are – a billionaire, the most powerful person on the planet – guess what: we’re all going to end up in the same place, so we might as well all make good, contribute and devote our energy to doing something positive.

… And cooking advice?

Stay calm is my advice if you’ve never cooked Asian food before. Don’t try to make complicated things. Start with a simple stir-fry. And above all, the big thing I always say to people is, don’t panic. What’s the worst that can happen?

Ken’s autobiography, My Stir-fried Life (Biteback £20), is out now. Ken will appear on BBC One’s Saturday KitchenSaturday Kitchen on 27 April to celebrate 40 years of teaching the UK to cook Chinese cuisine.

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