His first TV series was in 1984, and 'Ken Hom's
Easy Family Dishes' was published last month. He
appears today at the BBC Food Show in Birmingham
Slow boat to Chinatown: My father's family had come from China to Arizona in the Twenties. Arizona was wide open and they were pioneering; they had a grocery store. My father passed away when I was eight months and my mother went to Chicago, where we had relatives in Chinatown. It was a self-contained Chinese community, and I didn't speak English until I was six years old, when I had to go to school (Haines Grammar, named after a black slave). Looking back, I think that was a good thing because I was able to participate in two societies - for the price of one!
Chinese restaurant walls: It was a real struggle catching up. I had trouble with English - and still do, despite writing several books. In the afternoons, I would then go to Chinese school until 6pm. English- speaking school opened up a wider world and was more fun. Chinese education is very strict with a lot of rote learning and we were never encouraged to express ourselves. We would copy from the blackboard and write characters in brush strokes. I didn't retain much; I read and write French - but not Chinese. We were desperately poor and at 11 I had to go to work in an uncle's restaurant, which precluded me from doing Chinese school. I did everything, and it became my culinary education.
Ghetto blasters: At 12 I went to a junior high school I have tried to put out of my mind. On Fridays we had to put on our running shoes and get the hell out because the gangs would be waiting to shake us down for money for the weekend. At 13 I went to Tilden High School - for only one week. It was in the heart of the ghetto and there were so many gangs. My mother and her relatives decided to send me from Southside, where we lived, to Amundsen High School in the north of Chicago; they had to get a false address for me - another uncle had a laundry in the north side. Chicago had hideous winters and when it snowed it could take something like two or three hours to get to school.
Which planet are you from? High school opened another world, of well- to-do suburbia, made up of Italians, Greeks and Scandinavians who didn't see many Chinese, so that I was like out of a spaceship. It was a fascinating period, going from a school heavy with minorities to a totally lilywhite school. I worked in the restaurant from 11 to about 14 and a half, then in a supermarket and finally in an office near Chinatown. I would get home at 8pm or 9pm, having started at 6.30am. Sometimes I fell asleep in class. I wasn't top, that's for sure! I didn't go to graduation because it snowed so much our door was blocked; instead my mother made a wonderful Chinese meal.
California dreaming: At 17 or 18 I left and went for a year to Roosevelt University in Chicago, where I did some business courses, which I found boring. Then I decided to go to California; in 1969 things were happening to young people there and I wanted to be a flower child! As preparation, I went to Merritt College in Oakland. Who used to walk down the corridors? Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Panthers! Then I got into Berkeley, under the affirmative action for minorities, and read history of art and French history, which included a year in Aix-en-Provence.
Pasta caring: I was asked to give a cookery class in the house of a wealthy woman whose husband, a Congressman, had left her for his secretary. The class I gave was on pasta; no one knew what it was then. I earned $300, a huge sum: I could pay the rent and have money over for food. The following month, she said: "You probably know Chinese - would you teach Chinese cookery?" That was really quite successful and I was asked to teach at the California Culinary Academy, for professional chefs. I did very well at Berkeley. In 1976 I was very close to finishing but my career was taking up more time than my studies and I left. University made me confident, taught me to write and to express myself. The book that came out with my BBC series in 1984 was one of the most successful at the time; it completely eclipsed sales of Jeffrey Archer!
Interview by Jonathan SaleReuse content