Gok Wan: ‘The Eighties recession was a scary time for restaurants’

As the fashion guru-turned-TV chef prepares to choose the UK’s best restaurants, Gok Wan talks to Hannah Twiggs about why takeaways are self-care and his many different paths

Saturday 17 December 2022 06:30 GMT
‘I don’t want white tablecloths. I want something that feels completely warming’
‘I don’t want white tablecloths. I want something that feels completely warming’ (Getty)

Sweet and sour king prawn balls. Egg fried rice. Mushroom curry. Tofu in black bean sauce…” Gok Wan is telling me his typical takeaway order, ticking each item off on his fingers as he goes. Since he eats for a living, his takeaway has to be classic. Old school. “I want all the stuff that we served in our takeaway when I was growing up,” says the fashion guru-turned-TV chef. “I don’t want white tablecloths. I want something that feels completely warming, and for me it’s those flavours and that style of eating that just makes me excited.”

He is indeed excitable. Vivacious, even, especially when talking about food. All wild gesticulations and a smile as shiny as those thick, black signature specs. You can’t help but be drawn in. It’s the same unpretentious confidence that made him a household name almost 20 years ago – back then it was for teaching middle-aged mums How to Look Good Naked again on Channel 4. But over the past decade, the 48-year-old has made just as respectable a name for himself in the food world, presenting countless cooking shows, appearing regularly in the kitchen on This Morning, and writing two cookbooks. After voting closes this weekend, he’ll be judging the Just Eat Restaurant Awards, formerly known as the British Takeaway Awards, alongside fellow TV food personality Andi Oliver and TikTok sensation Poppy O’Toole.

The name change is significant. Awards season is almost as buzzy in food as it is in film, but that buzz is so often exclusively directed at restaurants in the upper, inaccessible echelons of the industry. You won’t find many restaurant critics in the mainstream media reviewing the locals they actually pay to eat at. A light is rarely shone on the millions of small businesses, takeaways and kitchens that feed “ordinary” Britons, unless it’s in a news story about the state of hospitality after Covid, Brexit or [insert other depressing economic event here].

Wan’s metaphor for this snobbery is quite fitting. “The global food industry is enormous. There are millions of people working in it. If we take our country, that’s just one army of workers. Now, whether you’re a general, a sergeant or a corporal, you’re still doing essentially the same job. In my mind, when it comes to food, whether it’s a super-high-end, Michelin-starred chef, or my dad in his takeaway in Leicester in the Eighties, there is no difference. Both of those people should be celebrated in equal measure for the work that they put in.”

That, he says, is what the Restaurant Awards are all about, as well as highlighting the incredible diversity of food available in this country. “The fact that you can go out and have an African meal on that street, a Vietnamese meal on that street… I love that. Food is amazing.” Back for a seventh year, the awards invite the public to vote for their favourite takeaway or local restaurant. There are 18 categories ranging from the top gong for Best Takeaway in Britain, which last year was claimed by Yorkshire-based Sakushi Japanese, to more specialist prizes such as the Good Deed Hero Award, which in 2021 was given to the British Raj Express in Hertfordshire for delivering over 3,000 meals to hospitals, GPs, care homes and ambulance services.

Despite the squeeze on household finances, more than half of us (60 per cent) still think that it’s important to treat ourselves to things like a takeaway in the midst of a cost of living crisis. “That word ‘treat’ is so important when it comes to food,” says Wan. “Getting a takeaway still feels like a big party event, doesn’t it? Opening up a bag of prawn crackers, the paper bag with the spring rolls, getting the curry out of the container… it’s all very celebratory.” Even after two years in lockdown, a large proportion of Britons still mark their happiest moments with a takeaway, whether that’s a birthday (46 per cent), anniversary (24 per cent) or simply an early finish to the work day (Wait… what’s one of those again?), which 15 per cent of us celebrate with a delivery from our favourite restaurant. “The idea that you don’t have to cook, that you don’t have to wash up, conjures up all these moments of luxury, these moments of self-care, these moments of ‘treat’. Even with the cost of living crisis, it’s still really important to treat ourselves.”

The fragile hospitality industry is still struggling with its own version of “long Covid”, too, with many businesses not predicted to survive another economic shock, and hundreds of thousands of jobs on the line. Wan knows firsthand what this is like. “When I was growing up, I saw my father’s restaurant when it was so busy that we could have packed the whole place out and done four covers per table a night,” he says, “but I’ve also seen it in the darkest depths of the Eighties recessions, when we only had one table in a night. It was a scary time.” For many, it is now, too.

Gok Wan will be judging the Just Eat Restaurant Awards (Just Eat)

Wan himself, for a long time, thought he’d left the food world behind. “When I went into fashion and then television, I guess I thought ‘this is it now. I’m just going to do fashion and that’s going to be my career,’” he says. “Then when Channel Four asked me to make a cooking show for them, I was petrified! I didn’t know whether my followers would allow me to diversify, whether they would ever believe that I could do something other than what I’d always done.” Turns out they were just as happy for him to pick up a wok as they were a makeup brush. The first show, Gok Cooks Chinese in 2012, was a resounding success – albeit among normies more than critics – and led to more culinary stints across ITV, National Geographic and Food Network. These often drafted in his dad, affectionately known by the nation as Poppa Wan, for culinary guidance and essential father-son banter.

There are few celebrities with fingers in as many pies as Gok Wan. On top of what he calls “the fashion, body confidence, social awareness and stuff”, he’s done plenty of panto parts, voice acting in a kid’s cartoon, an autobiographical stand-up show, fashion designing and has a fairly prolific DJing career that’s still going strong. It always comes back to food, though. “I’ve said this before, but I’m so lucky because I get to be what I would describe as a waiter every single day, just what I serve to my customers is completely different every single day,” he explains, his tone quieter and earnest. “One day it’s food, another day it’s writing, another day it’s fashion, another day it’s documentaries or broadcast… whatever it is, what I do every single day is exactly the same thing. It’s just the product that changes.”

Does that mean, then… that he is the product? “I’ve been really lucky because I’ve had a really interesting life,” he pauses, then bursts into that loud, infectious giggle. “Is that narcissistic?” We agree it’s celebratory. “I consider my life to have been quite interesting so far, because it hasn’t all just been plain sailing. I’ve been forced to confront lots of things in my life, everything from heritage and ethnicity to sexuality to… you name it, I’ve probably had to think about it at some point in my life,” he tells me, and pauses for a moment, serene, as though he’s doing just that. And then: “I feel really proud of where I am now.”

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