Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef-restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is the second in a regular series of Kitchen Conversations — informal but revealing interchanges with key culinary figures — that Van Aken will be contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Meditations for us.
Ken Hom, a chef, cookbook author, and television personality on Taishanese Cantonese parentage, was born in Tucson and brought up in Chicago, where his uncle had a Chinese restaurant. He studied art history at the University of California in Berkeley, giving Italian and Chinese cooking lessons on the side. In 1982, Hom was tapped to host a Chinese cooking series by the BBC; the show, "Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery," was a success, and the book that accompanied it has sold over a million-and-a-half copies. He has since starred in seven more TV series and published more than 20 books on food and cooking. Considering himself semi-retired, he divides his time between Thailand and southwestern France, and oversees Mee, a restaurant in the Belmond Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro.
Norman Van Aken: What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying?
Ken Hom: Chinese sausages with steamed white rice topped with a fried egg that was drizzled with oyster sauce. I was in Chicago’s Chinatown. It was a dish cooked by my mum.
Are you the first chef in your family?
I think so. Others were distant uncles who cooked but I think I am really the first in my family.
When did you start cooking?
At my uncle’s restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown at age 11.
When did you realize that it was "serious" to you?
Probably much later. I never thought I wanted to be a “chef.”
Where were you cooking when that moment took place?
At the California Culinary Academy in the late 1970s, when I began to teach how to dispatch a live chicken and then to dress and cook it the Chinese way. Half of the students left the room but I realized then how much I liked to cook and to teach cooking as well.
What was the first dish you made that you felt proud of?
Probably my chicken spring rolls with sun-dried tomatoes, and it was because I felt it was a true invention of mine.
Do you feel that the cooking life has caused you to sacrifice having a "normal life?"
Not really, because I chose not to have a restaurant. I get to cook all over the world in other people’s restaurants and I don’t have the hassles, headaches, and problems of having my own restaurant.
What was the closest you came to quitting the business and finding something saner?
I have been lucky to have my “cake” and eat it too.
What was your arc in terms of the first kinds of cookery you loved and how that morphed over your career?
I have traveled and lived in France, Italy, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore, and all these cuisines have influenced and informed my cooking.
Who is the most important cookbook author in your estimation?
Because she wrote about food as not only a metaphor but as culture.
Who is or are the most important chef or chefs of the past 100 years?
Joël Robuchon and Fredy Girardet.
Their cooking is simply the best and always perfect!