A teacher at heart
Chef Ken Hom reflects on his commitment to the educational mission of the Oxford Cultural Collective
As a chef, restaurateur, writer and broadcaster I am blessed that my career continues to be so rich and varied. Of all the roles I have performed, there is one of which I am especially proud: being a teacher.
I began to give cooking lessons at home in the early 1970s whilst studying Art History at the University of California. Having mastered Chinese cookery as a kid working in my uncle’s restaurant, and later learning about French cuisine by diligently following Julia Child’s recipes, I felt confident sharing my skills and knowledge with others. I began every session with a master-class and ended with a feast. They became so popular that I took a major decision – my future would lie in food, rather than art galleries and academia. My first formal teaching position came in 1978 at the fledgling Californian Culinary Academy. At a time when training to be a chef was not such a popular career path, this new institute adopted a pioneering approach. Its hands-on courses, accompanying cultural studies programmes and visiting lectures from culinary greats including M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard, attracted those eager to be part of California’s burgeoning restaurant scene. Not all of my classes at the CCA were as successful as I might have hoped. The Dean, Ron Batori, asked that I introduce students to cooking techniques that were truly authentic. Embracing his request, I bought a live chicken from San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, intending to show students how to use every part of the bird in their cooking. I began my class by swiftly cutting its throat and collecting its blood in a bowl. This simple process left numerous students ashen-faced and running from the room in horror. I said to Ron, “I thought this lot were serious about food”, to which he replied: “Not that serious”.
My first television series, which resulted from Madhur Jaffrey introducing me to a commissioning editor from the BBC, was Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery, broadcast in 1983. I was lucky to film this in Hong Kong, and I took the opportunity to introduce viewers to local fish markets, street food vendors, and small-scale family restaurants. Again, my aim was to educate, as well as to entertain.
I still consider myself a teacher. In my career as a writer and broadcaster I place food in its cultural and historic context, ensuring my readers and viewers gain meaningful insights into Asian cuisine. My last major television series, Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure, which I presented with Ching-He Huang, involved an epic journey to numerous parts of China that I had never visited before. We explored dishes, traditions and rituals specific to many different locations – reminding me that we should never stop learning. No matter how much knowledge we accumulate, the quest to learn more is what keeps us alert to the world around us.
It is my passion for education, in its broadest sense, which underpins my commitment to The Oxford Cultural Collective. As a proud member of its team I can use it as a platform to reach out to those who share my profound interest in food; to build positive relationships with others, through which I will go on learning; and to engage with students, who provide us with hope for the future. As its name suggests, the aim is to create an inclusive network that encourages as many as possible to learn about food and drink – and to do so in a way that extends our understanding of those from different cultural backgrounds. It must also have practical outcomes. By learning together we can change minds, influence practice and collectively improve our relationship with food and drink.
In short, the Oxford Cultural Collective is a unique project – one that will, over time, become a powerful hub for learning, creativity and collaboration – all focused on that most fascinating of subjects: food.