New generation of British Chinese heading back to roots to become chefs

By Alex Tan – Features Editor 

This is the first special article of three in which Nee Hao will be talking about the topic of a new generation of British Chinese chefs. Like our Facebook page to follow the series. 

Running Chinese takeaways and restaurants in the UK has always carried stereotypical ideals amongst Chinese children’s classmates and the general public.

Whilst the new generation of Chinese in the UK (including new Chinese immigrants) are less associated with the Chinese restaurant or takeaway industry, even just a decade ago, many people joked that they found it surprising if a Chinese kid’s parents didn’t own a takeaway or if they did it further cemented the idea that it was the most common job for Chinese people.

The Chinese are known for their huge economic influence in Britain and while it is true that quite a few families may have earned themselves a very good living by running restaurants, it may not have always been easy or ideal for them.

Chinese families who own catering businesses – particularly takeaways – work hours on end pretty much every day almost all year round, usually only taking short breaks, particularly around Christmas or Chinese new year. And more often than not, their children do not aspire to take over from them when they decide to retire. Or the parents want them to pursue a different and more ‘respectable’ or ‘profitable’ career.

Those who run restaurants probably have it slightly easier and are able to hire more staff and therefore, if their business is prosperous enough, they do not have to work as much. This however, could take years. But, as we have previously covered, even some of the most popular restaurants are struggling in today’s market as competition and rent increases faster than they are able to make profit.

However, now there is a gradual increase in the younger generation of British Chinese people who are heading back to their roots or showing their passion for the Chinese cuisine they grew up with. They’re not driving themselves into the ground running hit and miss takeaways, but instead heading into the higher end of Chinese catering.

And while many parents have worked hard to allow their children the privilege of going to private schools and university to study subjects that are guaranteed to get them careers in medicine, law and business, among others, some have ditched these paths to let out their inner cook.

Jeremy Pang is one of those of young Chinese who has turned back to his love of cooking. Having come from three previous generations of Chinese chefs, Pang has gone from obtaining a degree in Biochemical Engineering and working for various companies, to opening his own School of Wok in London in 2009. School of Wok was originally established as a mobile cookery school that taught Chinese cuisine to its students in the comfort of their own homes and in 2012 opened its headquarters in Covent Garden.

Now, in August the 32-year-old will open his first restaurant in Holborn. Cha Chaan Teng will be “a modern take on Hong Kong’s post-war Chinese-modern fusion”. Pang says of the cuisine: “it’s like a Hong Kong diner, but with higher quality ingredients. It’s about digging in and sharing, the way Chinese food should be eaten.”

Pang spoke to the Standard about the kind of students he gets at his cookery school: “We’ve had people who want to open a market stall, or places like Bao — street food restaurants. There is a younger generation like myself who are trying to push the cuisine forward.” He also noted that the number of students he’s had were between 25 and 40 and were looking for a career change, much like the one he himself made.

With people like Jeremy who are keen to embrace their heritage and the Chinese food culture, they can perhaps challenge the outdated ideas and cultural stigma that the older Chinese generation slave away behind takeaway counters or are just money-minded business owners. They can bring fresh, modernised ideas, restaurants and dishes to a growing appetite of people in Britain who love Chinese cuisine – it is, after all, officially the UK’s most popular foreign cuisine – but are wanting to try something new. And top of that, they can really make a name for themselves and boost Chinese people’s presence in the media.

Andrew Wong and Geoffrey Leong are two other examples of entrepreneurs who left office-based jobs to open up their own “cutting-edge” restaurants. There is also Larkin Cen, one of the finalist’s in the 2013 series of MasterChef, who originally comes from a legal background.

Ching He Huang is probably the most famous Chinese chef in Britain under the age of 40 right now. Since 2005, the 37-year-old Taiwan-born food writer and chef first has made appearances on both national and international shows and channels, including Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch and the National Geographic Channel. She’s also published several books, many of which revisit her childhood memories and favourite family recipes as well as give healthier options for Chinese cuisine.

And we all know of the internationally renowned Ken Hom, who has spent the last three decades as a TV chef, chain restaurant owner (Yellow River was popular in the UK in the early 2000s for its fusion of Chinese and other East Asian cuisines), author and has his own range of woks, which have sold over 7 million units in more than 60 countries worldwide.

Jeremy Pang looks set to follow in the footsteps of these two giants in the Chinese food realm, and of course continue the legacy his parents and grandparents have passed on. With contributions made to some of the UK’s most popular food publications and appearances on both food-oriented channels and analogue channel TV shows, Jeremy is beginning to gain traction in the foodie world. And we can’t wait to see and taste what he’s got coming up for us next.

These guys have no shame in their family background in Chinese cuisine and instead of using smarts they may have learnt at university, they’ve broken away from one stigma; that the Chinese are overly studious and prefer working in hard-working and high paying – if unsatisfying – corporate jobs. And now they’re trying to change opinions on another stigma regarding Chinese food workers, using their smarts to become successful, self-starting entrepreneurs.

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