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Prolific and Terrific Author: Ken Hom

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Fall Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(3) page(s): 9 and 19

This, the third spotlight, shines on Ken Hom. He spreads the gospel about Chinese cuisine worldwide. His efforts include many cookbooks and articles, and more. As a cooking teacher, radio guest, gastronomic tour director, cultural ambassador, BBC-TV’s featured Chinese Cookery Series chef, and honorary Chairperson of this magazine’s parent organization, The Institute for the Advancement of the Science and Art of Chinese Cuisine, we are well acquainted with many of his attributes.

This recognized and titled ‘Outstanding American’ was born in Tucson, Arizona and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Remarkably, as an American born Chinese, his roots and his instincts overflow with classical Chinese cookery. Unfortunate for Americans, he left the land of his birth. Now he lives in Europe making France and England home turf. Their gain is a United States loss!

Ken Hom was one of the first to see, say, and impact Asian and Western cuisines by crossing oceans and ideas. One of his books, Ken Hom’s East Meets West Cuisine (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1987) shows this blending of Chinese, French, and American foods and food notions. Fragrant Harbor Taste (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1989) told about the foods of Hong Kong and how cuisines and cultures melded there. In it, he wrote about Chinese food in transition long before others were willing to.

Ken Hom saw this in his travels and tastes, both done extensively. He also knew it because this erudite gentleman reads a lot; some might say he is addicted to the written word. As a matter of fact, those who know him well know that he subscribes to more than a hundred newspapers and magazines, reads them, and browses in his three thousand plus Chinese and other cookbooks in his personal library. And, he reads everywhere he goes.

Mr. Hom graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. There he studied Mediaeval Art History and gained considerable appreciation for beauty and time. While there, he also absorbed cultural and historical considerations and applied them to food. His cookbooks and other writings distill details from all of his experiences; that makes reading the almost two dozen of them worthwhile. In addition, they are easy to follow and fabulous to cook from. Each book and every article are products of his personal goals, which include continued practice and advancement in the profession, doing things that gain the respect of his peers, and always striving to be accepted at the top of his profession. He is forever investing in himself by always looking at what is ahead and then perfecting it. And in all of these, he has achieved.

Many refer to Ken Hom as an international culinary genius. Looking back at his accomplishments gives credence to a man with enormous intellect who shares his culinary and writing talents. His first cookbook Chinese Technique, published by Simon & Schuster in New York in 1981 was written with Harvey Steinman to demystify Chinese cooking. Since that ‘how to’ bible, he seems able to write another great one every year. His latest, that is the last one we located, is Foolproof Chinese Cooking (NY: Dorling Kindersley, 2001).

It and all the others in between have sold almost three million copies, worldwide. They have have been translated into ten languages, French to Flemish, Spanish to Slovenian. They, and their author, have won many honors including the prestigious Andre Simon Memorial Award in 1998. And, they have won appreciation from millions who can use what is complex and put together in a way that all can follow.

His success may have begun watching relatives. Maybe it had to do with his working as a dishwasher and seeing things bottom up. No doubt, it came about because he studied art and film and translated them into food. His experiences as a professional food photographer, free-lance TV producer, and chef help him assist others to see things clearly and repeat them successfully.

Many of his colleagues hasten to a seat at his table when invited. Those who do not know him personally, graciously settle for the menu items at restaurants he consults for or owns. Would that we all could get to them. We are told that best known are Imperial City Restaurant and the thirteen, at last count, Yellow River Cafes. At them, tasting his foods is touted as tops. Some settle for 'Ken Hom Ready-cook Meals' in markets. They are available in England and have been since 1994. Until he gets them to the land of his birth, others must learn to cook from his many books, watch his celebrity TV series made in collaboration with Hong Kong’s Lee Kum Kee sauce company, and use Ken Hom Woks and Cookware. We are grateful that the books and equipment are sold in more than fifty countries, and anxiously await the other items.

His segments of the BBC ‘Ken Hom Chinese Cooking Series’ is available for viewing in many countries. They attest to his knowledge and popularity worldwide. So does his book Ken Hom Travels with a Hot Wok (London: BBC Books, 1998). Many people are grateful for both. Listening and meandering the world, Ken Hom rediscovered vegetarian fair and shared fantastic findings in Asian Vegetable Feast NY: William Morrow, 1988. Wonder what is on his 2002 table and beyond?

Anthropologists, sociologists, and food historians meander to his Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese American Childhood (NY: Knopf, 1997) to learn about what impacts an American-born Chinese. This particular book pointed to the value of personal history and recipes as royal sources of food history. They have had an impact on an entire genre of Chinese and other folk in culinary to write about their own roots. Those amateur and professionals alike that need help when shopping for foods from Asia need to meander to a bookstore, acquire, then tote Ken Hom’s Asian Ingredients (Berkeley CA: Ten Speed Press, 1996) to their local Asian supermarket.

Someone recently asked Ken Hom about his favorite cookbooks. Never one to tout his own horn, he listed Chinese cookbooks by others. Three that he liked, every one dog-eared in your editor’s home were: Irene Kuo’s Key to Chinese Cooking (NY: Knopf, 1977), Gloria Bley Milller’s One Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook (NY: Atheneum, 1966), and one by Deh-Ta Hsiung. Hsiung was in this magazine’s spotlight two issues ago; and the book he was mentioning was The Chinese Kitchen (NY: St Martin’s Press, 1999).

Hom believes in putting harmony into everyday living. He does so in all of the foods he eats. Calling vegetables 'nature’s gift to man,' the foods that impress him most are the simple ones. They are the ones that Cantonese chefs believe are the best. For Hom, Sichuan dishes are fabulous, too. He knows that adding water and not oil is the better choice when cooking, he shows everyone ever so many wonders of Chinese cuisine, that one included. We admire him and his books. If you do not have many of his volumes we are sad for you. We prepare many of his recipes often, they are in our 'make them frequently’ repertoire. Using them can spotlight your own culinary talents.

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