Gok Wan unveils new look as a TV chef

The fashion guru is going back to his roots -- ginger and galangal, that is...

The series should have been called Gok’s Wok – the title was, apparently, being “actively considered” for Gok Wan’s new series on Chinese cookery. “If I was making something with a comical element,” says the man himself, “Gok’s Wok would have been fine. But I wanted the series to be taken seriously. I was making a show that was about recipes that are hundreds, possibly thousands of years old – recipes that have been passed down through my family. I don’t want to be disrespectful of that.”

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Gok is prepared for the backlash from foodie sorts who feel that he should just stick to what he does best. Fashion. Not food. “I’m ready for the critics to say, ‘What the hell is Gok doing? He normally grabs breasts and now he’s grabbing woks – what gives him the right to do that?’ But the fact is that, for me, food came long before fashion. We worked in catering. We had family restaurants in Leicester. So food not only fed our family, it fed our wallets.”

And it also shaped Gok as a man. When you’re working front of house in a restaurant aged six, it does give you a certain confidence. “I would stand next to my dad to greet the customers, take their coats and welcome them in. Ask how they were – that sort of thing. I would imitate my father. Social workers would probably have an issue with that now. But it was the most amazing thing Dad could have done for me.”

The young Gok worked in the restaurant for an hour every evening – the first sitting – and lunchtime on a Saturday. “It wasn’t a job,” says Gok. “We weren’t going off to work with Dad. It was more like playtime. Because my dad worked day and night, six days a week, and never come home in between, it was a way to be with him. It was his way of sharing dad time. But he was also teaching us his craft. It was a brilliant thing to do.”

As he grew up, Gok would delight in involving himself in every aspect of the restaurant business, from pot washing to bar tending. “I remember chopping the onions, making the sauces, and peeling the prawns. But finally, one Saturday, I was introduced to the range. That’s when I was taught to cook. That’s where my confidence comes from. That confidence comes from the first time I switched on the gas under the wok.”

The first Wan family restaurant was Bamboo House. “Everything about it was brown – very brown,” he remembers. But this was the 1970s. One of only three Chinese restaurants in Leicester at the time, Bamboo House was hugely popular and attracted a theatre crowd from the Haymarket. “Dad was famous for introducing dishes like seaweed and Kung Pao king prawn. Dishes that are mandatory now but which were new then. He was really innovative.”

But only as innovative as Leicester would allow. “It’s a question of whether you want to make your living selling £20,000 couture dresses or £10 leggings,” says Gok. “Business is more likely to come from leggings. My dad was an educator in food. I remember him smiling, clapping his hands together and saying, ‘Let me feed you.’ He would order food for the customers – something they probably wouldn’t have ordered for themselves. And then stand there proudly while they ate it.”

In the next Wan restaurant – the Panda – the family lived over the restaurant. It meant that Gok had more access to his parents. “We were more like a normal family,” he says. “We were upstairs, but it was comforting to know that they were all downstairs. To hear Johnny Mathis singing, and to smell the cooking drifting up through the floorboards, felt like home. It was brilliant. I still remember the sound of customers laughing. It felt very, very safe.”

He loved being around food. Too much, maybe – he put on a lot of weight and ended up being bullied. “There are lots of different reasons why a child would get obese and I probably hit most of them,” he says. “I had an incredible love of food, and access to it 24 hours a day. I felt lonely. And I felt rejected – but food never rejected me. Food was an incredible provider for our family. Funny really. I don’t blame the food, but it became a very big enemy of mine.”

Gok’s issues with weight led him, finally, to healthy eating. And Chinese food is about as healthy as it gets. “Chinese food has been given an Asbo over the years because of dishes like fried rice and stir fry – we as a nation are programmed to think that frying is wrong because we think of deep-fat frying. But if you’re frying in a tablespoon of oil, and then the food is divided between six people, what you eat is not going to be unhealthy.”

Gok is also keen to avoid the flavouring MSG (monosodium glutamate). “We had it at the family restaurant. And when I first moved out of home, Dad sent me off with his MSG. He was like an MSG pusher. But as I got older and more educated, I found I didn’t need it to make my food taste good. If I go to eat in a restaurant, I always ask them to avoid it because I get a particular reaction from it. If I need a fix, I sometimes allow myself to have instant noodles that are packed with MSG. But it makes me hyperactive. I recognise the symptoms.”

Throughout the series, Gok cooks with garlic, ginger and spring onions, what he calls the Three Degrees (“individually strong, but so much better when working in harmony”). By keeping things simple, he wants people to gain confidence.

“Even though my friends have had lots of Chinese food, are familiar with dim sum and want to try the more exotic dishes, they still expect me to order for them. It’s a confidence thing. You try a curry because you think you can get a curry sauce and just tip it out of the jar. Or you try Thai. You might not put any galangal in there, but coconut milk makes it taste authentic. Chinese feels slightly more couture than that. It really isn’t. It’s basic. There are basic tools and basic ingredients and once you get them right, the poetry will follow.”

Gok is proud of his father. And his mother. And he is proud of the recipes they’ve lent him for the series. “A lot of them haven’t been talked about outside Asia,” he says. Like congee, a Chinese porridge of leftover rice. “Show me a Chinese person who doesn’t love congee and I will demand a blood test, because it’s the Chinese food rite of passage. But the recipe was surrounded by an iron curtain. Until now. And Momma Wan’s congee is absolutely the best in the world.”

Gok Cooks Chinese is on Channel 4, Mondays at 8.30pm

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This article was first published in the Radio Times (19-25 May)