Ken Hom doesn’t like washing up, or Brussels Sprouts, or the way Brits ruin veg. But what he does like is champagne, steak and kidney pie, and British people. Oh and he doesn’t even mind frozen peas.
I learned all that in just one hour with the wok-cooking, stir-frying legend when I tipped up to watch him at a demo at Leekes in Coventry a month or so ago. You might remember my eyes were first opened to Leekes last year when I went to see the John Torode and realised that hidden inside this gargantuan store is a rather impressive demo kitchen that regularly hosts some pretty big name chefs.
I mean, you don’t get much bigger than Ken Hom do you? He’s the god of stir fry. I remember his book being on my parents’ cookbook shelf when I was tiny, and here he is, still going strong.
I managed to grab a few minutes with the big man himself before he started his demonstration, and he was nothing but lovely. You might have spotted our chat over on Hologram, but in short, even at 68 he still loves getting up in front of people and cooking live.
“These are the people who actually teach me, to help my write my books,” he said. “From them I find out what they do know, what they don’t know, what their questions are, how I can help them improve their cooking. I can see what kind of things still mystify them about wok cooking.”
With that in mind, we got cracking with a speedy show of how to cook several great dishes in super-quick time. In case you didn’t know, the secret to stir-frying is to get your wok really hot, and as Ken got cracking on his own version of a Chinese curry, he regaled us with anecdotes of the health and safety concerns he used to bring when filming his programmes – not to mention the three firemen he had to have on set.
To make the curry, he used the unexpected base of a Patak’s madras curry paste as well as oyster sauce. Who’d have thought it. But what we ended up with was a lovely fresh-tasting spicy curry, with a nice warmth that came through at the end.
To give you an idea of quite how quickly this guy works, we were only about 10 or 15 minutes in by the time we were munching on our little taster of curry. As he joked, plenty of other chefs would still have been chopping or prepping by that point.
Then again, the joy of these demos is that they have a helpful person do all the preparation for them and line the ingredients up nice and easily. Oh, and do the washing up, which is good since Ken Hom apparently hates doing that.
His array of nicely-prepped veg gave Ken the opportunity to talk about how rubbish us Brits are with veg: “There have been no people on earth who have mistreated vegetables like you do”, he told us with a wry smile – though he admitted we’ve gradually got better. Phew!
Next up was a classic fried rice packed with some of the vegetables he had in front of him. Again, it seemed lightning quick. One minute he was slicing and dicing, adding all sorts of slightly unexpected additions like beansprouts, fruit and chilli bean sauce. Then the next minute it was in the wok, and suddenly a pile of hot steaming rice appeared on a tray ready to be divvied up for us hungry punters.
The final dish of the day was a vegetable stir fry. A rainbow of colours and textures that seemed to take about two minutes to throw together. Of course, we picked up a few tips along the way – the most important being the reminder that: “all vegetables are not created equal”.
No, it doesn’t mean that sprouts are second class citizens while asparagus lords it over everyone else. But what it does mean is that you have to remember that some take longer to cook than others, and add them to your dish accordingly. To that end – aromatics in first, followed by the more tender types that only take a few seconds to soften.
And yes – you can use frozen peas. Ken Hom says so.
The three dishes were done and dusted within about 45 minutes (told you he was quick), leaving Ken time to chill out with a glass of champagne – apparently he always has one to hand when he’s cooking – and answer some questions. They included what his own favourite food is, which I’m happy to say included some British classics like Toad in the Hole, steak and kidney pie, and fish and chips (providing the chips aren’t soggy).
Overall, it was a great hour spent in a cooking legend’s company. The food was great, and a reminder that you can easily throw together tasty, fresh, healthy food without it taking hours and hours or needing a ton of sauces, condiments and accessories.
But I think what I liked most was seeing that such a famous guy who’s been in the game for so long can be so nice, so humble, and so wise. And let’s not forget passionate. He must have done thousands of demonstrations over the years but I came away feeling inspired and in awe of someone who’s still so into what he’s doing.
As a person who’s still not hugely confident in cooking and creating things in the kitchen, I came away with a renewed enthusiasm and inspiration to do more and not worry about it going wrong.
I’ll leave you with a few of his words that stuck with me:
“When you cook you should think outside of the box.
“I have no pre-conceived notion of what I’m going to do. This is the way you should cook, you should be inspired when you go shopping. There are no rules to anything, just techniques.”
Thanks Ken, you’re a wise one.
I was invited to Leekes in Coventry to the demo by Ken Hom. They hold regular demonstrations that only cost about £5 or £10, so check their website for details.
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