UK celebrity chef reflects on the ingredients of her success

By ANGUS McNEICE | China Daily UK | Updated: 2017-04-06 17:24

Celebrity chef Ching He Huang says she owes much of her success to what the Chinese call "people of destiny".

UK celebrity chef reflects on the ingredients of her success

Ching He Huang 

"I graft hard, but it's just as much about the amazing people who have helped me along the way," she says.

"These are quite reflective years for me. I'd like to be someone's 'destiny person' now."

Experiencing a childhood home beset by financial difficulties, Ching, 38, has become one of the world's best known British-Chinese chefs. Known for her fresh, healthy dishes and modern take on Chinese food, she's fronted 11 cookery TV shows including the BBC's Chinese Food Made Easy.

She has contributed to a sea-change in the UK's relationship with Chinese food, which recently overtook North Indian cuisine as the nation's preferred takeaway, according to some surveys.

"Chinese food has had its bad press, but now things are changing," she said. "In the early 2000s when I was starting out, people would say, isn't Chinese food greasy and unhealthy? The quality here has now improved a lot."

Ching had her first cooking lessons from her grandmother on a farm near the small village of Baihe in Taiwan, where she would help gut fish and wrap dumplings for her 25-strong extended family.

"That's where I get a lot of influence from, those early memories helped shape who I am now," she said.

Decades on, Ching's main aim is to bring those age-old Chinese tastes and techniques to Western homes through her shows and cook books.

"It's a modern approach to Chinese cooking while staying true to the heritage and using the best ingredients you can get your hands on, sometimes with an East-West slant, so it's accessible in a Western kitchen," she says.

After those early years in China, Ching spent part of her childhood in South Africa and the UK, where she had problems assimilating with local kids at school and was picked on.

"I used to shun my heritage, but now I embrace it and I want to share my experience with everyone," she says.

"As a child, you want to be like everyone else. It was when I went back to my roots, my culture and cuisine that I developed a deep appreciation for where I came from."

Ching's success has been hard-earned. She began working in a clothing store in North London at 15 out of necessity to help support her cash-strapped parents.

The family had moved its import-export business from China to London via South Africa, and economic turmoil in the early 1990s hit the company hard.

"My father lost a lot and my mum had to go back to Taiwan to work," Ching recalls.

"My father looked after us but he was a very bad cook, so I had to pick up the wok. All I wanted was to go out and spend time with my friends but I'd have to come back to cook."

Ching worked two part-time jobs while earning an economics degree at Queen Mary University of London, all the while pondering her route into the business world to gain her independence.

"I felt like I had been chained to my family for so long with so much responsibility," she says.

"And I had spent years watching my parents struggle financially."

The brainwave came when sampling what she describes as sub-par Chinese food at a popular London sandwich chain.

"It was cold noodles, a couple of bean sprouts and soy sauce for 3.50 pounds ($4.4), a rip of ! I thought, I can do better," she says.

"That's when I came up with the idea to open a catering company and sell noodles."

Ching set to work, establishing connections with local vegetable suppliers and a Chinese supermarket. She earned the trust of a property owner in North London where she opened a small kitchen, taking orders in the morning and distributing them to 80 Europa Food stores around the city.

"My landlady was my 'destiny person' as they say in Chinese," Ching says. "She believed in me and said, OK I'll give you three months free rent for the kitchen and if you do well, you carry on renting from us."

After a chance encounter with a PR person for cooking show Great Food Live, she impressed the commissioning editor in a guest appearance, and the show Ching's Kitchen was born. Ching transitioned from small business owner to celebrity TV chef.

"I could now show people delicious food and not be at the mercy of buyers, and not have my creativity hampered," she says.

Ching says much of her own inspiration comes from regular visits back to China, often with her husband, actor Jamie Cho.

"I just want to get better and better," she says. "I want to go back to China more to learn. Every time I go back, I get a new idea, a new taste and a new perspective."


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