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My life in hospitality – Ken Hom

10 July 2009 by
My life in hospitality – Ken Hom

Ken Hom has come a long way from working in his uncle's restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown when he was 11 to being awarded an honorary OBE in the last month's Queen's Birthday Honours list.

His father passed away when he was a baby so "my uncle became a surrogate father to me and was crazy about quality and doing things properly. He taught me there was no room for anything but the best."

Initially, Hom didn't want to get into hospitality, "when everyone else is having a good time, you're working and when you're off, everyone else is working." But the industry drew him in. "The rewards of making people happy are immense. Either you love it or you hate it. It's about wanting to make the customer happy and offer the very best you can."

He advises young chefs to see and experience as much as they can by travelling and working for different chefs and to help them create their own cooking style.

But watch the self-confidence. "It's easy when you're on telly to think ‘I'm a star', but other stars will come along. You need to keep learning every day and contribute more than that to society," he says.


HIGHS…
In 1984 my first TV series came out and I went to a book signing in London and 600 people were queuing up in the pouring rain outside the store. I asked who they were waiting for and the manager said they were waiting for me. The British public took me to their hearts and it thrilled me like no other.

The first time I cooked at a summit for 23 heads of state from Europe and Asia was fantastic as they really loved it and I couldn't believe it. I'd been asked by then prime minister Tony Blair to come up with something to satisfy all the different palates and different diets and everyone was happy. The menu was cod wrapped in rice paper stuffed with basil leaves and Chinese spices; Chinese confit of duck and warm mango compote for pudding with a big dollop of vanilla ice-cream for the Europeans.

When I published my first book Chinese Techniques in 1981 it was lauded by the New York Times and it was an incredible thrill. It's like a culmination of all your work and the first time I held a copy of it in my hand was a real wow. My mother was also very proud.


LOWS
… Making my first BBC TV series was excruciating. I had never worked in TV before and I had to memorise all the ingredient quantities and do it over and over. I hated it, it was like torture. I'm not one of these self-assured people, I have enormous self doubt and, in front of the cameras, I felt like I was dying. I don't get depressed but that almost got me.

When I was very young working in my uncle's kitchen everything seemed so enormous. Every day 200lb of prawns and 50lb garlic had to be peeled and every Thursday 80lb sacks of conch arrived and I had to break them open with a hammer and clean them. It was an awful job and so smelly I would wonder how much lower I could get.

Finally in school, taking Latin, I'd rather be ignorant than have to learn Latin.

Family Partner and step daughter
Age 60
Favourite holiday Rio de Janeiro
Drives I've never driven. I take taxis or harass friends to drive me
Working Motto: Be real.

RECESSION-BUSTING TIP

Cook totally seasonally and squeeze every last penny out of your food by using every single thing, even garlic peel can be used in stock. On my consultancies the first thing I do is look through their bins. It's unbelievable what chefs throw away that can be used to make something delicious.

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