Interview with chef Ken Hom
Celebrity chef and writer KEN HOM, 59, began his career teaching at the California Culinary Academy, a school for professional chefs. Now a prolific author and regular face on TV, he enjoys spending half the year at his homes in France, as he tells Richard Webber...
What do you like about the French way of life?
It’s so concentrated on food! There’s such a food culture here and you can eat so well. Ingredients are wonderful and every time I go food shopping, I feel overwhelmed by the variety on offer. I’m discovering new items every day.
Have you bought your own property?
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Yes, a flat in Paris’s 18th arrondissement and a house in Catus, near Cahors in south-west France. I’ve owned the small two bedroom flat in Paris since the early 1980s. Nearby is rue Lepic, where you find one of the best butchers in Paris and some wonderful grocery shops. My three-bedroom house in the southwest is an old watchtower and dates back almost 900 years. It has a big garden and swimming pool and is where I spend the summer. I bought it in 1991 but it needed lots doing to it.
What do you like about south-west France?
Again, it’s food. The people are very food-orientated and you find lots of wonderful items such as truffles and foie gras. But the overall lifestyle in this corner is special. Lots of British people have moved here because there is no industry and, therefore, it’s unpolluted; it’s also very green and not as hot as the Riviera. I particularly love the country lifestyle, with small villages and friendly people.
How do you rate French cuisine?
It’s a reference for western cooking and any good chef will acknowledge that you have to pay homage to French cuisine, just like Chinese, for its variety and influence on other cuisines. Although Spanish and Italian cooking is great, none have the variety or depth of French cuisine. I cook lots of French dishes and one of my favourites is potatoes cooked in duck fat, served with a confit of duck and salad – you can’t go wrong!
Do you try and spend as much time as possible in France?
I spend about six months a year here. The rest of the time I’m either at my home in Thailand or travelling.
What do you do when you visit?
The south-west, where it’s so calm, is perfect for catching up on reading; and if I’m writing a new book, it’s the ideal spot because it’s so quiet and I can concentrate. Unlike Paris, which has too many diversions and means it’s difficult for me to keep my mind on writing, my place down south is perfect. When I’m not working, I enjoy visiting friends’ homes for meals or cooking for them at my place – it’s great for socialising. My kitchen in the house is bigger than my entire flat in Paris and can hold 14 people around a table very comfortably. Although I have no intention of selling, if I did get rid of one property it would have to be the one in south-west France, though; there’s too much maintenance and you have to employ a gardener and get someone to look after the place.
Do you speak French?
Yes. I speak with a horrible accent but people understand me, which is the main thing. Many people speak English in Paris but I had to learn the language for when I’m in the south-west, where most don’t speak English, so it was sink or swim. It’s important to learn the language because it’s your entry into the culture and you can form more in-depth friendships, which is important.
How do you find the French?
I’ve grown to love them and have many close French friends. Living in a country with such a strong culture has been an enriching experience.
Do you get spotted in the street?
Yes. I’ve had 12 books published in French and my TV shows are seen here. I don’t mind being stopped in the street but I’m glad I’m less well-known here than in the UK or US.