– Gok Wan: ‘I joke that I came out of my mother with chopsticks in my hands’

Gok Wan: 'I joke that I came out of my mother with chopsticks in my hands'

The TV presenter on learning to use chopsticks and being front-of-house, aged five, at his parents’ restaurant

Many Euro-Asian homes have a cupboard devoted to Chinese ingredients. The smell cannot be contained and it’s my earliest memory. I both object to and love it.

I joke that I came out of my mother with chopsticks in my hands. But one of my earliest memories is of my dad forcing me to learn to eat with chopsticks. It was his way of saying, “This is my heritage, you need to accept it, but I have confidence that you will.” The exhilaration, when I succeeded, was incredible.

Rice is a massive and symbolic part of my life. When I over-ate it was down to rice, when anorexic I still craved rice, when ill I need rice and when happy I serve rice.

My first role in catering was front-of-house, at five or six, at my parents’ restaurant in Leicester. Me and my brother were dressed in tuxedos and we’d greet guests and be paraded around like show ponies. When Dad said, “Let me feed you” – meaning, let me choose your food – this was my cue to run over and take drinks orders.

Sunday was the only day the restaurant closed. If Dad wiggled his fingers, it meant we could go swimming. I hated getting undressed in front of people and getting wet. I’d only go because afterwards Dad would spoil us with armfuls of sweets. Bad from a diet point of view. But from a love point of view, amazing.

I remember customers calling Dad “me old China”, usually when pissed as farts, and how demoralised I’d feel when they sent food back. In fact it was an “I-want-to-kill-them” hatred.

I learned all my life skills working in a restaurant. How to have a relationship, manage, develop a brand, dress people, make people confident – everything.

With the TV series, I’m cooking the repertoire my dad taught me, and he’s taking part. Even though I’ve cooked, say, wan sum noodles a million times, he’ll still want to tell me how to stir it. So you’ll hear me say things like, “Dad, it’s my bloody recipe.” There was a moment when he backed down for the first time in my life and said, “OK, OK, OK.” Three OKs might seem like nothing to anybody else, but to me it was like the most beautiful music I’d ever heard.

I’ve recently had four operations on my spine, including two discectomies. The experience was amazing – apart from the very limited menu. The first time my mother visited, she asked, “Shall I bring a flask of juk [Chinese rice congee]?” I said no. But within hours I was ordering in nasi goreng from the local takeaway.

Gok Cooks Chinese starts on 21 May at 8.30pm on Channel 4. The book to accompany the series is published by Penguin/Michael Joseph, £20

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