Gok Wan on restaurants, cooking on TV and hosting the UK's first Asian food awards
Fashion icon, TV chef and Asian food evangelist Gok Wan talks to us about the Golden Chopsticks Awards, his life in food and his favourite London hotspots for Asian food
There's something eminently watchable about Gok Wan. That's not a hugely unexpected compliment to pay someone with a mainstream TV career spanning more than a decade – but Wan's particular niche seems to be, simply, being more watchable than his subject matter. I can't say I have more than a passing interest in fashion (or nudity), but I can fondly remember watching him light up the screen on Channel 4's How to Look Good Naked when I was 16. Whatever it is he's doing, it's guaranteed to be engaging and infectious.
This energy no doubt contributed to him being welcomed by the food community when he first tried his hand at a cooking show, with 2012's Channel 4 series Gok Cooks Chinese. But while he was concerned he might not have the cachet to pull it off, he recounts, "the public took to me cooking as easily as me showing a woman what dress to wear." Wan, who grew up around food and has always adored cooking, has since become not only an established TV chef, but an ambassador for Chinese food in the UK.
Now, he's building on that role by spearheading the inaugural Golden Chopsticks Awards, a celebration of Britain's oriental food culture in mid-April. He tells us how it came about, what it means to him, and how he can't remember a time when he wasn't immersed in the world of food.
How did the awards come about?
I met Lucy Mitchell, the MD of [oriental food emporium] SeeWoo Foods, a few years ago when I was making a documentary about food for Channel 4. We remained friends and met up last year – she brought Sarah Lewis, a PR director, and they said, "We've got an idea: we really want to do a Chinese food awards." We did some research there and then while drinking lots of cocktails, and we figured there wasn't anything out there like it. And after doing all of the research on it and looking into just how much Asian food is underplayed in this country, despite being probably the most widely eaten, we decided that we needed to give it the platform, as well as the love and consideration, that it deserved. So I said "Let's do this, but let's supersize it; let's put the awards on steroids and see what happens."
Within about three weeks we'd gone from 100 people being invited and a very small room to 500 guests, with Ken Hom, Ching He Huang and Fuschia Dunlop – great writers, great people, great ambassadors for Asian food. And that was the birth of it, really – it was a drunken conversation that brought it all around. We're really proud of it, and the response has been phenomenal. Not only the really established, very well-respected sponsors that we've got – the likes of Lee Kum Kee and Just Eat – but the response from the restaurants and the takeaways; the chefs involved; and also an incredible response from the public. We relied heavily on the public voting for their favourite food outlets, and in the end we had more than 5,000 votes. For the first ever awards show like this, that's quite a remarkable number.
Was there anyone else on the judging panel that you'd worked with before?
Yes. Jeremy Pang is involved – we interviewed him and did things at his Asian cooking school, School of Wok, for my cooking show. Fuschia Dunlop was also on the programme. The likes of Fuschia, who's writing about Chinese food; Jeremy, who's teaching about it; obviously Ken and Ching, who are presenters like me, not to mention Eric [Yu] and Sonny [Leong] – they're great names to have involved.
How wide-ranging are the restaurants that have entered?
We've got a real mixture – there's everything from Japanese and Chinese food, which are probably the two most-eaten cuisines, but then Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean as well. It's weird, isn't it? All of us blame the internet, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for invading our lives, but actually social media has made the world so much smaller. As a result, the world seems to be so much more educated about food. Our tastebuds have changed and evolved with how we view the world.
So we've included all of that food – of course we have, because we want to celebrate all oriental food – and it's made it quite exciting for us because we can really see what people are eating now, and we can celebrate that food with them. Years ago it was virtually impossible to get hold of a bowl of Vietnamese pho, but now we've got chain restaurants selling it , and restaurants doing really accessible street food – all of that stuff just wasn't ever around before. We're travelling as well – as soon as low-cost flights became available, us Brits are no longer just jumping on a flight to Spain. We're now going to Thailand, we're going to Vietnam, we're going to China, we're going all around. We can afford to travel further afield for less money.
It's like the old days of the spice route, isn't it? We'd go out, invade a country and come back with a bag of turmeric. Now we're doing exactly the same thing: we're travelling further around the globe, we're tasting different flavours, we're experiencing different foods and different cuisines and we're bringing them back.
If ever there was a time for the Golden Chopstick Awards it's now, because we're living in a very hungry society
This seems especially true in London.
Yes. Walking around the streets, you can see just how well-travelled the city is, and how many places people have been to, by the demand for different cuisines. It spreads to fast food, as well: going into Chinatown and ordering wanton noodles would have been considered quite exotic when I was growing up whereas now it's really everyday. You walk to a supermarket and you've got stacks and stacks of these Korean instant noodles and sriracha; not just the plain soy sauce that was on the shelf when I was a kid. We have changed completely. So if ever there was a time for the Golden Chopstick Awards to happen it's now, because we're living in a very hungry society.
You can tell by the thousands of people queuing up in King's Cross for Hawker Chan's noodles...
Oh my God, yeah! And look at Bang Bang in Colindale – it's phenomenal, the idea that you've got a full hawker market in North London. And I don't think Colindale has a particularly large Asian community – probably no more than anywhere else.
I come from catering – my dad was a restaurateur, and he would always say to us "Whenever you're in Chinatown, only go to a restaurant full of Chinese people; don't eat at a restaurant full of white people." That's changed now – you can't trust that philosophy any longer, because our palates have become far more educated and we know what we want to eat and where we're going to get it from. It's very exciting.
Was there a point you can remember becoming really interested in food?
Dad got us involved really young – I can't remember a time I wasn't surrounded by food, whether that would have been a menial job of packing prawn crackers or spreading prawn paste on a piece of white bread to make prawn toast, we were always involved. It was a business and we lived in that business – either above the restaurant or behind the takeaway – but it was far more than that. Me, my brother and sister, who all love food – in particular Chinese food – found a real passion for it, and the fearlessness that comes with cooking, trying different foods, experimenting but also sharing our food.
If you get brought up in a restaurant, I think it goes two ways: you either become someone who wants to serve food or someone who's terrified of it because it reminds you of your childhood. We all went the first way; we love cooking, we love sharing it, and we love having friends over and talking about food.
When did you realise you wanted to make it part of your professional life?
I didn't. I was really lucky because I've always cooked, obviously, but I work in fashion, and that's been my life since I was in my early 20s. It wasn't until Channel 4 asked me if I was interested in making a cooking show that I ever considered the idea of cooking on TV. And we made the show and I wrote the cookbook to go with it, and it worked.
I was very unsure whether the public would ever accept me as a cook. I never, ever claimed to be a chef. But it was odd: the public took to me cooking as easily as me showing a woman what dress to wear. I've had several cooking shows since; I've made an international cooking show that's won awards – it's been phenomenal. So the idea that I can talk about food in a more academic remit, as well as really showing my passion for Asian food, has been great. These days I do consider myself part-cook as a profession, because of the amount of work I've done with it.
I was unsure if the public would accept me, but they took to me cooking as easily as me showing a woman what dress to wear
Have you got any tips for great Asian food in London?
There's a handful of restaurants that I'm very loyal to. I'm a creature of habit, so if I find somewhere where I love the food then I'll go back. Off the top of my head, if I'm going for a bowl of noodles it would be Cafe TPT on Wardour Street; if I'm going for dim sum with friends for lunch it would be Dumplings Legend. If I'm going to grab a bibimbap or some Korean food there's a place on my street called On the Bab that I run out to probably three times a week. There's a tiny little Japanese cantina next door to my house called Cocoro, which I love.
If I'm going to go out and get drunk with friends over dinner I'll go to Ichibuns in Chinatown. Nusa Dua on Shaftesbury Avenue does great Indonesian food – I'm slightly obsessed with Peranakan food, and they do really authentic food there, which is lovely. It's a real mix. I also cook most days, so as you can see, I'm surrounded by it.
Have you got any more food projects on the horizon?
I cook on This Morning, and I split my time on that show between cooking and fashion. They've taken to it really easily, so I still keep my hand in. I've got a couple of TV series up my sleeve currently and put into development, but I need to get Chopsticks done first – it's a full-time job at the moment.
The Golden Chopsticks Awards are on 16 April at the London Marriott Hotel; for more info, go to thegoldenchopsticksawards.com