Norman Van Aken's Kitchen Conversations: Ken Hom

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Hom has starred in eight TV series and published more than 20 books on food and cooking.

Who is the most mischievous chef you have ever known?
Jeremiah Tower, because he has a sense of being the best chef but never taking it seriously.

If you could go out for drinks and dinner with any "food person" living or dead, who would it be and why?
Auguste Escoffier, because he codified French cooking, which in my mind is the best — after Chinese!

What food or ingredient do you adore?
All sorts…. I don’t have a particular favorite. For example, I love garlic and chiles but also black winter truffles and white Italian truffles. But then I adore Sichuan peppercorns as found in Sichuan, wind-dried Chinese sausages, duck confit, and more! An endless array of food and ingredients and discovering more each time I travel! My suitcase back is usually filled with food, and luckily I live in Europe and Asia, where I am allowed to bring them back with no problem.

What food or ingredient will never enter your body again?
It is funny, but I don’t believe I ever had a bad sensation about a food or ingredient. Of course, there are some I have tried but would not die to try again soon, but to say never — that is not me! I don’t believe I ever had a bad sensation about a food or ingredient. Of course, there are some I have tried but would not die to try again soon, but to say never — that is not me!

Where in the world would you like to dine now and why?
Hong Kong, which I believe has some of the best Chinese food in the world. It is a mixture of East and West and has access to some of the best ingredients in the world. I always feel that when I am in Hong Kong that I have only touched the tip of the iceberg of cuisine there. The cooking talent there is awesome and quite daunting and I am constantly amazed at the skill and imagination of the chefs cooking there. 

When I was just starting out I used your books to learn from. When you were young, who were your heroes in the biz?
I would think the standard: Julia Child, Jean Banchet from Chicago, Jacques Pépin.

Do you feel culinary schools are preparing young folks for a life as a chef?
Yes and no. Yes, by teaching the fundamentals and no, because of the lack of experience. I think you really need both.

What do you think of fusion cuisine?
Sometimes I think it is a bit of a scamother way to sell the public on bad cooking. As with nouvelle cuisine, you have many chefs mixing ingredients and techniques of which they do not have a true understanding or feeling about.

Has it existed for eons?
Yes, because all cuisines are a mixture. It comes naturally with influences of people moving about, mixing cultures and background and sharing all that. 

What is a dish that exemplifies fusion cuisine?
Spring rolls (from Vietnam/Southeast Asia) with chicken (universal) and sun-dried tomatoes (Italian) and fresh herbs (European).

What part of your body has taken the biggest beating over the years in the kitchen? 
My back and legs, from standing up in the kitchen.

Music in the kitchen or no? If yes. who's on your playlist during prep?
Everything — classic, oldies, chill-out, jazz, Brazilian, Cantonese pop, Italian and  French pop, meditation, zen…anything but country-western and rock!

I remember seeing a picture in a magazine years ago of a wine cellar in France that I believe was yours. It was amazing! If it was yours do you still have it?
Yes, that is my cellar here in Catus, in France. I still have it but sold the entire inventory at Christie’s in 2006, down-sizing.

What kind of a collector are you?
A crazy one. I had many large format premier cru Bordeaux, and now I am drinking local. Lots and lots of champagne as well!

What famous guests have you enjoyed cooking for the most?
Tina Turner. She loves Chinese food. Tony and Cherie Blair. They are crazy about Chinese, especially duck. Elton John. Quite a number of heads of state, but the president and prime minister of China were my favorite.

Favorite food movie (or food scene) of all time?
Babette’s Feast, especially the scene of the final meal.

When you cook, what is a favorite meal progression?
As a starter, something really simple — truffle sandwiches Then we would proceed to a seafood or fish course. The main dish would be from the market — veal, not beef. A simple dessert — fresh, ripe fruit.

If it all came down to the world knowing your life's work via one dish you had creared or become best known for, what dish would it be?
Perhaps my version of Peking duck, such a classic and iconic dish, but I have made slight changes that I believe make it a different dish. After all, I think I have cooked over 600 Peking ducks in my career!

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If you had not made it as a chef, and money were not an issue, what profession would you choose?
A most interesting question. I would have loved to be a dancer. That is something I can do well. Perhaps in my most distant dream, a singer, but alas I don’t have a voice and cannot carry a tune — but I can always dream!