Wok of ages;My Best Teacher;Parting shots;Interview;Ken Hom

16th January 1998 at 00:00
From the age of seven I had a dual education - part western and part Chinese. My parents came to the United States from Canton in southern China, so I was born in Arizona and brought up in Chicago. My father died when I was eight months old, and my mother, whose father was a mandarin, insisted I learned about my culture.

So every day after finishing at Haines Elementary School in Chicago at 3.30pm, I went to a Chinese school. The two were very different. My mother used to complain about all the western rubbish I was learning about democracy and thinking individually, and I rebelled against the Chinese method of learning - everything by rote and having to memorise facts.

When I started school, aged six, I spoke no English. I couldn't communicate and had no idea what the teachers were saying. I soon picked up the language though, and by seven was blabbering away.

Miss Luckett, who taught me at my first school, was jolly and friendly. She was black and I remember her telling us, when John F Kennedy was elected president, that he would bring great changes to the country.

She was my class teacher, what we call our home teacher, teaching everything from mathematics to reading. Just before we left she invited the class to her home and cooked us a wonderful meal - down-to-earth southern cooking with maize, sweetcorn, sweet potatoes and fried chicken.

Miss Luckett taught me the importance of reading and a love of words. I'm sorry I lost touch with her because I would love to give her one of my books.

I have blotted out memories of junior high and high school. My time there was uneventful and I had no inspiring teachers. From the age of 11 to 14 I helped out in my uncle's restaurant but I had no ambition to be a chef.

At the University of California I studied history of art. I had two very special professors Gerry Cavanaugh and Jean Bony. Gerry Cavanaugh became a great friend and now proofreads my books. He was a French history specialist whose lectures were always riveting. He would recount the events of the French Revolution, describing what it meant to the ordinary people. From him I acquired a deep interest in history, which led me to my other best teacher.

Jean Bony was a Frenchman who taught medieval art history. He made the subject come alive and inspired me so much that at one time I planned to study at the Courtauld Institute in London and make a career in art history.

Both men talked about history and culture in a captivating way. They explained how intricately the two are linked. Now, when writing cookery books, I use the same technique - even when giving a recipe I describe where it comes from and how.

Another influential teacher was Germaine Callet, my French tutor. She encouraged me to go to Europe in 1971. She, and my other teachers, taught me there was a bigger world out there. I learned to be inquisitive and to express myself.

When I graduated I planned to continue studying and become a professor, specialising in medieval sculpture. But going to Europe changed me. I'd spent a year in France and Italy as part of my course and when I returned to the US I was less sure about an academic career.

I'd learned to cook while I was travelling and a friend asked me to give a cookery class on making pasta. This was in 1974, way before Italian cookery became fashionable. It was a huge success, and I was asked to give a class in Chinese cookery. One thing led to another and I was soon invited to write a book and do a TV series for the BBC. At first, Chinese cooking was secondary, French and Italian cuisine were my real interests.

I was an unexceptional student and even in my 20s had no idea what I would finally do for a living. When I needed money I always managed to find a job, but I never dreamed my career would work out as it has. But 14 books and umpteen television programmes later, here I am.

Ken Hom, 48, is best known as the man who inspired a nation to pick up a wok and learn to cook the Chinese way. He has 14 books to his credit, the latest being Travels with a Hot Wok, published by BBC Worldwide in December. He has a six-part cookery series on BBC2, Mondays, 8.30 pm. He was talking to Pamela Coleman

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