Author Interview: Chef Ken Hom
Chef Ken Hom reflects on his time as a hippy and his 3,000 volume cookbook collection
A year away from his seventieth birthday Ken Hom, considered among the greatest authorities on Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking, has achieved much in his culinary career. He has written 36 cookbooks, many translated in more than 16 languages. The accompanying book to Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery, the 1984 UK TV show which propelled him to success, sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide and is still regarded by many as the bible for demystifying Chinese cooking. But Hom has not been resting on his laurels. In 2007, he received an honorary doctorate. Just two years later, he was honored by the Queen of England for services to the culinary arts, recognizing his role in introducing Chinese food to British cooks, as well as his many philanthropic endeavors.
Born in Tucson, Arizona, in 1949 to Cantonese parents, Ken Hom was cooking in his uncle’s Chicago restaurant at 11, but he never planned to be a chef. In the seventies, he attended the University of California, Berkeley to study the history of art. “I was a bit of a hippy,” he says. Here, he was deeply influenced by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and her organic, local and seasonal approach to food, which helped shape his own. “We have a better understanding now because of people like Alice. We understand how important food is to life. It’s not just about eating something delicious, it’s about health.”
His big break came in the 1980s: the BBC, having created a successful Indian cooking series with the doyenne of Indian cooking, Madhur Jaffrey, was looking for someone who could similarly popularize Chinese cooking. Jaffrey had seen Hom teaching a class in California and recommended him. Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery launched in 1983 and became an instant hit. Since then, he has written more than 30 cookbooks, as well as an autobiography, My Stir-Fried Life.
Today, Hom splits his time between Thailand and the South West of France, but is in perpetual motion, cooking and teaching and pursuing philanthropic projects all over the world.
Our chat with Ken Hom:
What was the first cookbook you bought?
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, in 1970. I didn’t know anything about French cooking. I was a student in California and people were doing dinner parties at their homes and talking about French cooking. Being totally brought up with Eastern food, I only knew about pizzas and hamburgers, which I didn't like. I vaguely knew of this woman, Julia Child, who was on telly and everybody said her book was a classic. So, I went to the book shop and because I was a poor student, I got a ragged copy of it that had stains on it, which was wonderful. Julia Child's book immersed me in French cooking, and within a year, I was taking French classes, and I actually went to France.
Who are your food writing heroes?
Well, Julia Child of course, and Irene Kuo for explaining the mysteries of Chinese food. Even though I’m Chinese, what she did was clarify in words things I instinctively knew but no one had explained to me. She made me delve deeper into my cultural food heritage. Her book, The Key to Chinese Cooking, is one of the best Chinese cookery books ever written.
And Elizabeth David. Oh God, what an amazing woman. When I first started reading her I was a student and her books on France and Italy were WOW! I would fantasize about going to these places that she opened up for me. The way she talked about food was how I wanted to really feel about food. Finally, I did meet Elizabeth, near the end of her life. She was wonderful. She had a bottle of Chablis under her bed, because she was bedridden. She pulled it out, we drank it, and then when we finished I said, “Mrs David, you must be tired.” She said, “Nonsense, I'm having such a good time!” She pulled out another bottle of perfectly chilled Chablis, and I thought: this is how I want to go.
How many cookbooks do you own?
I have about 3,000 cookbooks and they all now reside at Oxford Brookes University (in the United Kingdom). I wanted to give my books to this country so people could use them as a reference. It feels good to share them with other people, particularly students. I felt I was hoarding, keeping them all to myself; so I decided I should declutter while I’m still alive!
Who are the new food writers you enjoy?
There are so many great people writing now – the more the merrier, we all challenge each other, share things, up the benchmark. I love Bee Wilson’s books, and Ching He Huang, Angela Clutton. And Andrew Wong, I love seeing new Chinese chefs coming up; Andrew he calls me Uncle Ken now!
What was the last cookbook you bought?
Panikos Panayi’s Fish and Chips: A History. I loved it because I love fish and chips! It’s wonderful to read something all about one topic. In fact, I loved it so much, I read it three times.