Ken Hom: ‘Tina Turner loved my Peking duck’

The chef started working in professional kitchens at the age of 11 and was 35 when he made his on-screen debut
The chef started working in professional kitchens at the age of 11 – and was 35 when he made his on-screen debut - Clara Molden

It is 40 years since Ken Hom, one of the most recognisable, respected and adored chefs of all time, first appeared on our screens – complete with the fire brigade behind the scenes. When Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery aired on BBC One in October 1984, his flaming wok terrified the producers.

“The BBC had three firefighters on set,” he recalls, “and I was asked to slow down my cooking as we still had 28 minutes on air to fill. They’d never seen someone produce a dish so quickly. I believe it was the speed of preparing a stir fry that captured everyone’s attention.”

Hom pictured in 1984 for the BBC show, Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery
Hom pictured in 1984 for the BBC show, Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery - Radio Times

The nation was gripped, and has been ever since; it is no overstatement to say that Hom, now 75, is single-handedly responsible for bringing Chinese cooking into British homes. The author of 37 books, translated into 16 languages, he has inspired millions to cook. His wok sales are even more phenomenal: more than eight million branded pans have been sold worldwide, five million of them in Britain – one in seven kitchens.

“I feel humbled and proud at the same time,” he says in response, “especially when so many people tell me that they have had their Ken Hom wok for 30 years. It blows my mind to think that I am in some way with them in their kitchen as their wokfather.”

Hom: 'I feel humbled and proud at the same time'
Hom: 'I feel humbled and proud at the same time' - Clara Molden

Hom’s success is a far cry from his modest beginnings. He was born in Tucson, Arizona, to Cantonese parents who had emigrated to the United States in the 1920s. After his father died of a heart attack when he was only eight months old, his mother, who spoke only Cantonese, moved to Chicago’s Chinatown. “We lived in a tiny flat with just two rooms: a kitchen and a room where we slept and watched TV,” Hom recalls. “Mum made simple home food like rice steamed with Chinese sausages, stir-fried vegetables, and a fried egg drizzled with oyster sauce on top of rice. Sometimes I dreamt of food, as I often went to bed hungry.”

From the age of 11, he assisted his uncle in his restaurant on weekends to help make ends meet. After studying history of art and French history at the University of California, Berkeley – teaching cookery classes in his spare time to pay the fees – he made a living as a photographer while teaching classes in Chinese, French and Italian cuisine at San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy.

By the time a British cookery programme was mooted, Hom already had a publisher in New York and had written a book about Chinese culinary techniques to rave reviews. He had even done a US book tour, on which has was interviewed in Baltimore by an up-and-coming television presenter: a certain Oprah Winfrey.

Ken Hom's autobiography, 'My Stir-Fried Life', published in 2016
Ken Hom's autobiography, 'My Stir-Fried Life', published in 2016 - Alamy

It was the Indian-American cook and author Madhur Jaffrey (who had already made a successful series for the BBC) who put Hom forward, having met him at a party in New York, but it took considerable persuasion for him to come to London for his first screen test. The BBC had been looking for a Chinese chef to front a series for two years and had rejected 52 candidates. Hom was offered the slot on the spot.

He recalls chicken wings with black bean sauce as one of his early hit recipes. These days, a favourite is steamed white fish cooked, Cantonese-style, with spring onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil. But, he stresses, “my ethos hasn’t changed much over the years. My advice is to always start by understanding the basic stuff. Techniques such as seasoning the wok each time you use it; velveting, a Chinese method [of coating food with egg white, cornflour and sesame oil before frying] to seal in moisture and keep meat and seafood tender; and never adding more oil to the wok mid-cooking.” (If a stir-fry really does seem too dry, first “try stirring the dish more”, Hom advises, then as a last resort “add a little water or rice wine”.)

What has changed over the past four decades is the prevalence of Chinese ingredients in this country (“You can buy rice vinegar in any supermarket around the UK, which still blows my mind. I used to have to suggest dry sherry as an alternative.”) That, and the rise of social media. Hom worries about the proliferation of TikTok influencers offering advice about healthy cooking without a basic knowledge of nutrition, and believes that teaching young people wok skills can help them eat healthily, thriftily and speedily – and could perhaps alleviate the obesity crisis. He notes approvingly that many woks are bought for students about to leave home for university.

“I have always tried to stress the positives of Asian culture and ignored the negative stereotypes of Chinese takeaways,” he says. “I think it has helped that I was first a teacher before I became a TV presenter and writer.”

These days, Hom likes to entertain a lot. “My philosophy is to cook what you like to eat and not to impress. I mean, who can resist beautifully moist roast pork belly with plenty of crisp crackling skin?” He is “obsessed”, he admits, with his “mise en place,” fastidiously preparing his ingredients before the cooking begins. “Often when guests come round they look a bit concerned and say, ‘Ken, you’re not in the kitchen, are we going to have a meal?!’”

Hom: 'My philosophy is to cook what you like to eat and not to impress'
Hom: 'My philosophy is to cook what you like to eat and not to impress' - Alamy

Among the guests hosted over the years at his home in the south of France (he has properties, too, in Paris and Bangkok) have been a great many celebrities. “Tina Turner was something else,” he recalls. “I was introduced to her at a glamorous party in Paris and she said she loved my food. I invited her to visit the next time she was in the south of France and, to my astonishment, she called to say she would like to come over with her partner. I cooked the most magnificent Peking duck. Usually I like to suck the last morsels of meat off the bones, but I didn’t in the presence of Tina. She kept repeating, ‘So delicious, darling!’ She was a real one-off.”

Hom has long been fascinated by French food and culture and credits the works of Elizabeth David (the mid-20th-century British writer whose books championed regional French recipes) for sparking this love affair. As well as owning a tiny flat in Paris (“in Pigalle, which was a very seedy neighbourhood when I bought; now it is very bougie”), he has lived in a village close to Cahors for 33 years. “Everyone knows each other in the rural community and they don’t give a bean about celebrities,” he says. Home there is a converted clock tower dating back to 1185. “It has a fabulous wooden kitchen. I have my precious collection of copper pans and woks hanging up beside my Chinese cleavers and lots of vintage china which I collect from brocantes.”

Ken Hom has said that Chinese food in London is now as good as anywhere in the world. Pictured here in restaurant China Tang, London
Ken Hom has said that Chinese food in London is now as good as anywhere in the world. Pictured here in restaurant China Tang, London - Clara Molden

Oh, and an air fryer: Hom has one in each of his homes and is a big fan. But since they can’t be used to do stir-fries or steam dumplings, “I don’t see them as competition to the wok,” he says. “They’re brilliant for chips, truly. I like to use duck fat to cook my chips in them. One of my farmer neighbours in France keeps ducks and I asked him if he could make me some confit duck with my own recipe. I asked for plenty of duck fat, too.”

Hom considers himself a true Francophile. “French shoppers are almost as particular as Chinese in examining everything minutely before making any purchase,” he says with affection. “I love that a kind-of Chinese whisper will go around the village passing on who has the best produce at the best price.”

Two of the chefs he most admires, and who are now his friends, are French. “[The pastry chef] Pierre Hermé can’t understand my not having a sweet tooth and being able to resist his macarons – that’s unless they are his clever savoury ones.” Multi-Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse, meanwhile, “has the most incredible palate”, according to Hom. “If I were ever to cook for him, I would do my salmon fillet with slices of truffle on top, wrapped in Japanese rice paper and cooked so that the salmon is perfectly flaky yet the skin is crisp.”

Hom adores Japan, in fact, and confesses, “when I go there I just eat and eat. The subtlety of flavours intrigues me. What’s also interesting is that their concept of umami, which I like very much, is subtly different to the Chinese [approach], which is a more salty, savoury deliciousness.”

It was Hom’s late mother who encouraged him to be proud of his heritage. He is the head judge of The Golden Chopsticks Awards, which celebrates East and South East Asian restaurants and food businesses in the UK and hosted its 2024 ceremony in April. “[The awards] are so important in recognising the coming of age of Asian food culture. It is now part of the DNA of UK food,” he says. And Hom personally sponsors the Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’ve been fortunate, and success means I can now help make a difference. People listen to what I say, so I can help all sorts of causes [Action Against Hunger and Prostate Cancer UK among them]. I want my money to make this a better world when I am gone.”

Ken Hom’s most treasured…


“Everything is improved with garlic, but peeling it reminds me of the 100lb of garlic I used to prepare at my uncle’s restaurant every Saturday. I confess to buying ready-peeled garlic. A simple supper I often make is stir-fried Chinese greens topped with garlic on rice; it’s so comforting.”

Piece of kitchen kit

“My wok, of course!”


“I adore A Wong [in London] and I think he is incredibly talented and creative and deserves three Michelin stars.”


“I adore fish and chips. I like Seashell in Lisson Grove [in London] but I don’t like queuing [for a takeaway], so I sit in the dining room.”