He’s been dishing out much needed fashion advice for years, but now Gok Wan is moving into a new television genre – cooking.
You may think a food programme presented by someone from the world of fashion would be full of endless recipes consisting of a lettuce leaf and a glass of water, however it couldn’t be further from what Gok is dishing up. Wan isn’t interested in getting the nation to go on a crash diet, and his new series, Gok Cooks Chinese, is a sumptuous feast of a show, featuring irresistibly tempting meals from the orient that are easily prepared, healthy, and utterly delicious.
Here, Gok reveals how food has always been an instrumental part of his life, why we’ll see a new side of him this series, and which member of the Wan clan we’ll be getting to know along the road.
This is a new direction for you. Why did you want to do it?
It was Channel 4′s fault. I blame them entirely. They called me in and suggested the show. I thought they were mad – I never wanted to be the next Jamie or Gordon, but I thought about it and we shot a taster tape, and it just worked. It felt very natural to do, and obviously having cooked with dad for many years, I may not have the capacity to be a chef, but I’m definitely a cook. So it all came about that way, really.
What jobs did you do in your dad’s restaurants when you were a kid?
I did everything. We learned the ropes from a very young age, everything from working on the front door, cloakroom, bar, kitchen, pot-washing, waiting tables, every single part of a small, family-run catering establishment we were involved in. Probably the only things I never got involved with were ordering the stock and doing the books.
Was food a big part of your life at home as well?
Huge. And it always will be. Food is a language that my entire family have used to communicate with each other. So whether that’s stories, of information, or sharing, it doesn’t matter – food has always been a massive part of our lives, and will continue to be so. It’s how we get on together. It’s also how we argue.
How often do you cook at home, and how much of what you cook is Chinese food?
Currently a lot – and all the time Chinese, I don’t cook any other cuisine at home, really. I might do the odd grilled tuna steak, but I don’t think you can call that cooking – it’s more like heating up, isn’t it? But a lot currently, because I’ve been off work for a few weeks, so I’ve done a lot of cooking. I’ve had lots of friends over. If I’m in production, then never – I just won’t cook, because I’m too tired. If I’m writing a book or doing something where I’ve got a lot of time at home, then cooking is always a really good distraction for me from what I’ve got to do. I think I will have cooked four or five times this week.
What are your favourite Chinese and non-Chinese dishes?
My favourite Chinese dish changes daily. At the moment I’m really into my dumplings – normally I would say a wan ton noodle broth, but this week it’s a water dumpling made from prawns and Chinese chive and leek, it’s delicious. My non-Chinese food favourite… can I say sushi? It’s still Asian. I’ll eat Chinese first, and then I’ll eat Japanese or Malaysian or Thai. The only Western food that I’ll absolutely crave is a roast dinner, and that’s it. It’s probably because I’ve got quite partial to spice, so I eat a lot of hot food.
Do you think that Chinese food has a bad reputation? People tend to think of it as using a lot of batter and MSG and so on.
Yeah, definitely. It’s kind of unjustified, the reputation, but then again Chinese foods in Western Takeouts and restaurants is really full of flour and gloopy sauces, MSG, colourings. A lot of the stuff is deep fried. But that isn’t real Chinese food. Traditional Chinese food doesn’t taste or look or feel like that. A lot of it also comes from the use of the word ‘fried’ – we associate that with weight gain and heart disease and stuff like that. But if you stir fry something, you’re using maximum a table spoon of oil, so it’s not ‘fried’ in the way we might think, it’s just the technique used to cook it.
Do you think that people are a bit intimidated about cooking Chinese food at home?
Yeah. I think it’s seen as sort of mysterious. The Oriental Asian community in the UK doesn’t really have a presence in the media – we don’t have families on soap operas, and we don’t have Oriental Asian newsreaders. We never hear about the community unless it’s Chinese New Year. What comes with that is a massive amount of mystery. And the mystery has provoked a lack of understanding about the food, and a fear of experimenting with it, so we just don’t go anywhere near it.
What are the key ingredients that everyone should have at home if they’re going to be cooking Chinese food?
One of the things I’ve promoted on the series is something I call the Chinese Basket of Love. It’s all the sauces and ingredients you’d use in Asian cooking; your soy sauce, your sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, Shao Hsing rice wine and fish sauce. Those ingredients are the base to cooking most Chinese food, and it’s only six bottles in total. You can get all of those from big supermarkets, you don’t need to go to Chinatown or to Asia to go and get them. And once you’ve got them, you must always have in your fridge ginger, spring onion, garlic and chilli. All of that together is the base to most Chinese cooking.
Do people need to go to Chinese supermarkets to get any of their ingredients?
I would suggest everyone goes to the Chinese supermarket for the experience, because it is phenomenal, to go and look at some very complex stuff there that I don’t even understand how to use. But if you live in the Outer Hebrides and you can’t get to a Chinatown, then don’t feel that you still can’t cook Chinese food. Almost all of the ingredients will be available. We were filming at Christmas time in a supermarket in Marleybone, and I was looking round the shelves and I noticed in the international food section that they do home brands for all the Chinese stuff – the Shao Hsing rice wine, everything – that’s how available it is now.
You’ve clearly got an absolute passion for food – how do you stay healthy and slim?
Because Chinese food is really healthy. I personally don’t like the flavour of fried food, so I don’t crave things like chips and that sort of stuff. I would never try and promote the idea that if you only ever ate Chinese food you’d be thin or super-healthy, because that isn’t right – it depends on quantities and on how you cook it. But if I lived on a diet of fast food, which has been known in my history – for convenience and my sugar addiction – then I definitely wouldn’t be as healthy as I am now.
You cook a lot with your dad in this series. Are you very close?
Yeah, we are really close, and we always have been. Our relationship has definitely changed over the last few years, as he’s got older and I’ve got older. It was really nice to cook with him – I was very aware that I didn’t want him all over the show, and he didn’t want that either. I didn’t want to turn him into a Nana Pat or a Maureen from Driving School, where they suddenly become a quirky, unusual old person you can feel sorry for and like at the same time. It was an amazing experience, because he always teaches me something new.
He is incredibly knowledgeable, and more passionate about food than anyone I’ve ever met is passionate about anything. He lives to eat. We have a remarkable relationship where we have no boundaries, and we can be completely honest with each other. To spectators it can appear cruel, but it’s not, it’s just a relationship we’ve formed over the years, and it’s a relationship that I wouldn’t want to change.
How did he get on being in front of the camera?
He was great, he was brilliant. I definitely realised where I get my showmanship from. At times, when he was concentrating, he was a bit quiet, and when he was off camera he was definitely funnier, but as a first time experience on camera, and holding his own, I was really proud of him. He was really coherent, in his Anglo-Asian kind of way, and funny, and passionate. That’s what you want on TV really – someone who’s passionate about what they’re doing.
Are there any Chinese dishes that you’re incapable of cooking?
Yeah, there’s lots of really old traditional stuff that I don’t really understand – all the herbal stuff I find quite tricky. I was brought up eating it, but I’ve never really cooked it. My dad’s shown me a couple of times, but it’s quite complex. It’s the wonderful world of the goji berry, the lotus plant and the stick leaf and all that kind of stuff. It’s a little bit like witchcraft. It’s a cross between medicine and food. Because I don’t speak the language, it’s very difficult for me to go and buy the stuff and ask about it and get taught it. It’s very complex, I don’t know what goes with what else. So that style of Chinese cooking I know nothing about.
Did you have any culinary disasters while you were filming?
Yes. The first day that we started cooking, I was doing one of the dishes, I think it was the Morning Glory, and I messed it up and had a complete shit-fit, and decided that I was going to do it again, much to the panic of the director, who was watching the clock at the time. But that was the only thing, really. Everything else was all right. One dim sum dish dried out slightly, but I’ve cooked this stuff so much over the years that it wasn’t that difficult for me to be able to do, and hopefully that came across on camera as well.
Were the crew quite happy to dig in to everything that you’d made?
Oh my God, it was brilliant to watch. That was the best part of filming the show, feeding everyone. The crew would come in daily and say what dishes they’d tried to cook at home, or after the weekend they’d say “I replaced the Sunday roast with the twice-cooked pork,” stuff like that. That was really nice. They absolutely loved it. The biggest thing about cooking Chinese food is the fact that it is about sharing. There’s no point in cooking a dish and keeping it for yourself, so I’d always cook way too much, so the crew all got to have a load. Everyone put weight on.
Are you happy to eat some of the more outlandish dishes, the chickens’ feet, snake, stuff like that?
No. I’ve never cooked any of it, and I don’t intend to, really. There’s enough dishes in my repertoire for me to be able to feed myself for the rest of my life without having to go down the realm of goats’ bollocks and stuff like that. But I do get it, it’s just not my style.
Viewers will see a different side to you in this series, won’t they?
Apparently so. I didn’t consciously do it before I started filming. I think it’s obviously more relaxed. All the television I’d done before this has always been interacting with other people, so it’s been slightly more reportage, slightly more voyeuristic. This was slightly more personal, because it’s conversations on camera, and me on my own mostly. So naturally you get a different style from that, and it is slightly quieter and more reserved. But it wasn’t a conscious thing; it was something that happened naturally.
You’re also very much more soberly-dressed, aren’t you?
That was a conscious thing. The director aid “What would you wear to cook at home?” So it was all much more relaxed. I think if I was dressed up head-to-toe, I’d look ridiculous with a wok in my hand, trying to cook in Cuban heels.
Are you pleased with the results of Gok Cooks Chinese?
I’m really pleased. Obviously I’m a bit nervous about it going out, because I want it to do well. Not just from an ego point of view, but because everyone worked really hard on it. But as much as I can be, being my own biggest critic, I’m really pleased.
Gok Cooks Chinese starts on Channel 4 in late May.