The other Jamie on a food mission: Meet the chef teaching people in the East to love Western food

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Jamie Bilbow has peddled falafels from a bike in Beijing and taught the Chinese to try fish and chips, he tells Lu-Hai Liang

You've probably heard of Jamie Oliver, but to thousands of Chinese people, Jamie Bilbow is the Western chef they turn to for cooking advice. With a book coming out next year, a number of TV programmes under his belt and more to come, the 25-year-old’s profile is rising fast. He even has the distinction of being one of the few foreigners to have worked in North Korea, where he taught chefs Western cuisine in the capital, Pyongyang.

There are many examples of intrepid foreigners foreigners who have found fame and fortune in the Far East, some through lucky accident. Bilbow, from the start, chased his dream. Using clever tactics, he is on his way to achieving it. One such strategy got him national media attention when he was just starting on his journey. “A friend of mine gave me a three-wheel bike,” Bilbow says in a café in Beijing. “I took that and turned it into a mobile kitchen machine.”

He then rode around Beijing, stopping in tourist hotspots. Calling out in fluent Mandarin, trying to attract custom in the traditional Chinese manner, he drew big crowds and eventually newspapers and TV programmes started to take notice. And all from peddling falafels to the Chinese public.

“From a business point of view, it was a great marketing exercise,” he says. “My costs were low, risk was low but the exposure was high.”

This was never a business, but a means to “generate buzz”, something that is key to Bilbow’s ambitious plans. In two years, he has built himself something approaching a media empire­ in a country he now calls home.

Born in Leamington Spa, his British parents moved to Hong Kong for work when he was a year old. “Hong Kong in the Nineties was experiencing an economic boom,” he says. “It was a vibrant and buzzing city. I certainly attribute a lot of my work ethic to the surrounds I grew up in.” He lived there until he was 18. “When I left for university, my biggest regret was that I hadn’t learnt any form of Chinese.”

He enrolled at The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London to study Chinese and business, graduating in 2011. Cooking has been an interest since the age of six. “I spent a lot of my youth watching cooking shows. Jamie Oliver in particular was an inspiration.”

On his four-year degree course, he spent a year in Beijing. This is where the opportunity to work in North Korea arose. At the time, Bilbow’s father worked for the British Council in Beijing, where part of his job was overseeing projects in Pyongyang. The British and Swedish ambassadors wanted someone to train their North Korean chefs in Western cuisine. Bilbow was up for it.

Only 19 at the time, he spent a month tutoring two older North Korean women (“they took notes on everything I said”). Much of his time was spent on the embassy compound accompanied by a translator. He taught them how to cook meatballs, soups, hamburgers, pastas, pastries, a roast and to make ice cream, plus curries, samosas and Thai food. He wrote a recipe book for them that to this day remains somewhere in the secretive, Communist state.

The year spent in Beijing proved pivotal and the decision to study Chinese was an invaluable investment. His love of languages, food and engaging with people has meant he’s steered away from the traditional chef’s route of hard hours spent in a professional kitchen. “My father, a professor, has always instilled the importance of academia. He advised me to keep cooking as a hobby and at university develop my other passion: languages. And so I put the TV chef dream on the back burner. I did manage to refine my cooking skills doing an internship in the Marco Polo Hotel in Hong Kong.”

It was during university that he resolved to be the best Chinese-speaking Western chef in China. “My first tactic was to get used to being on Chinese TV, speaking in Chinese.” He entered a Mandarin speech competition that was televised and came second. Making connections with producers, he has presented a few cooking shows introducing Western food and exploring Chinese cuisine, and was the subject of a Chinese documentary aired in August.

The young chef owns a kitchen in a traditional part of Beijing (name: “Dami Chufang”, which translates as “Jamie’s Kitchen”), where he gives cooking classes in Western food. “It’s home cooking to a high standard; classic dishes from different countries­. I like to do fusion snacks and to incorporate Chinese ingredients myself, like I do a Sichuan pepper ice cream, and Chinese-style burgers.”

There are also contrasts in technique. “We tend to make a reduction to make a thicker sauce and for a stronger flavour. Whereas in China, they get the flavour first then add corn starch to thicken,” he says.

His current project is a book, a Western food “Bible” (written in Chinese) that he’s labouring over and is due next year. “It’s about building a name. I’d like to be the go-to guy for Western cooking in China. Then in maybe five years or so, I’d like to do the reverse. Be the Chinese-food expert in the UK.”

It’s a kind of reverse engineering. Get experience and become famous in China, using your Chinese language skills and knowledge of Western food while learning Chinese cuisine on the side. Then come back to the UK leveraging that hard-won expertise. It’s an ambitious but marvellous plan. Though while British cuisine has seen a revival on these shores, the trend has not reached China. “I am constantly having to defend the British corner,” Bilbow says. “There is still a prejudice against British food. Chinese people say, ‘my friend went to England and hated the food’, and sometimes people think because I’m a British chef that I can’t be very good.”

His classes are a beginner’s guide to Western food, but a lot of dishes are still alien to his Chinese students. Cooking pasta, for example, will often be a new experience: “They’re often surprised because it’s very simple.” Bilbow likes to challenge preconceptions: “When I talk about fish and chips, they’ll laugh. They think it’s hilarious. Then I’ll actually make it. I use fresh fish, a light batter with saffron. It goes down a storm.”

Mushy peas “go down a storm”, too. And fruit crumbles are definite winners. “I tell them it comes from Britain and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s quite nice actually’. For some reason, though, Stargazy pie is famous. They find gnocchi completely foreign, the idea of potato dumplings.” Fish pies are also well received even if his students find the potato layers (a very foreign idea) highly amusing. 

Bilbow has met Oliver, one of his big influences. “It was during university. He was doing a Sainsbury’s advert outside SOAS. I had a little chat with him. I said I’m a chef as well. My name is Jamie as well. He said, ‘You must get a lot of shit for that’. I said, “Yeah, I do”. I’d love to meet him now. He is coming to China. I don’t think he has as big a name as he could do in China. So I don’t know if I could be of assistance...”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project