Making Christmas Wontons and Talking British Chinese Identity
“I’m probably more English than Chinese in many respects but just because you’re born from Chinese parents, you still get stereotyped."
Sometimes, you're just not Chinese enough.
When celebrity chef and School of Wok founder Jeremy Pang got his big TV break, appearing on Nigel Slater's Simple Cooking series in 2012, the BBC contacted him to ask what his garden looked like. "We'll do it but only if your garden works for the show," they said. The broadcaster was looking for that universal insignia of authentic Asian heritage: pak choi growing in the backyard.
Eager to please, Pang called a vegetable farmer friend and did a Ground Force-style makeover of his garden in just three days.
"I'd never done anything like that so I just thought that was how it worked," Pang tells me now, adding that the experience taught him a harsh lesson: treat media as a side project. Take the opportunities when they come but never chase.
A few years on from the Slater debacle, how does Pang feel about the media stereotyping?
"I call it positive racism," he says. "I'm probably more English than Chinese in many respects but just because you're born from Chinese parents, you get that stereotype. On the big channels, it's always what's safest. I get it. I started a company called School of Wok so people are going to want to know about that cuisine but it's like you have to shoehorn in your Chinese heritage and it's quite hard to get past that."
Teaching cooking is and always will be Pang's first passion though, and I've come to the School of Wok in Covent Garden to learn how to make Christmas parcel wontons: a fusion of Pang's British and Chinese identity and the spark for the Slater story.
Pang likes to work with a cleaver and he wastes no time setting me up finely chopping the Chinese base: a slither of ginger peeled with a teaspoon, a clove of garlic, two spring onions, and a few water chestnuts to give it some crunch. Next, we mix in the British ingredients: turkey mince, sage and onion stuffing, bacon, and Brussels sprouts.
Do you have Brussels sprouts in China?
"No," he replies, and we move on.
Half way through the prep, one of Pang's uni friends pops into the kitchen for a quick chat. He's strapped up, having broken his collarbone in a game of rugby. I ask Pang if he ever played.
He tried but "I was too small for that shit." Nowadays, table tennis is as far as Pang goes on the exercise front. Is he good?
"I can play. Typical Chinese man. Talking about stereotypes," he laughs.
Pang, it seems, is always laughing. When cooking, his head is down and he's in the moment but is also just as quick to flash a big grin.
Born a leap year baby in Darlington hospital (they put his picture in the paper, swaddled in his mother's dress), Pang grew up in Barnard Castle before moving down to London at a young age. He's proud of his British-born Chinese heritage and says he was "really brought up in British culture with a bit of Chinese in my blood and food" and—another stereotype that rings true—in his education too.
"My mum was a proper Tiger Mum," he says explaining the term: a strict mum who pushes her children to succeed academically, based on the Amy Chua memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
From the get-go, Pang had seven days of education: normal school, Chinese school, instrument lessons, karate, and extra tuition for whatever he was behind in.
"Until about the age of 18, I kind of resented the Chinese culture a bit and that upbringing, because as a ten-year-old kid you want to be out with your mates playing football," Pang says.
A latent cultural rebellion of sorts led to Pang ignoring his cooking inheritance of which there is plenty. Back in the 60s, his granddad on his mother's side owned a bakery in Manchester's Chinatown. His dad's family ran the Dragon restaurant in Finsbury Park in the 70s and and his uncle ran Pang's Cottage in Hillingdon.
Pang is that rare thing: a third-generation chef who never directly learned cooking from his family. Apart from a course at Le Cordon Bleu, he's mostly self-taught. By the time he went to university, he was cooking Spanish, Italian, and French dishes. Still, he couldn't escape his Chinese roots.
"I turned up to uni with a bag of rice and a wok and everyone called me Wok Man," he remembers. "I guess it was my destiny."
It is not my destiny to make wontons. Pang tells me we're doing a classic fold, pulling the corners of the wonton pastry square up into a triangle and holding them with our left hands whilst forming a "mouth shape" with our right and, using it with a pincer motion, gathering the pastry up and finally squeezing together to seal.
Ten attempts later and I've managed to make wontons that look like The Elephant Man.
Most people would be reaching for the cleaver at this rate but in true sympathetic-teacher-helping-the-idiot-of-the-class mode Pang says: "That's not too bad." It's easy to see why his wife encouraged him to open a cooking school in 2009. It was a year of big change for Pang as his father had recently passed.
"Both sides of the family were in the food business and he always loved being in the kitchen," Pang says. "When I did the Cordon course, he said that was the best thing I'd decided to do for myself— and when I said I didn't want to be a restaurant chef he was quite pissed off about that. It's a funny thing. He always wanted to be a celebrity chef. I never really asked for it. Luckily, I've had a lot of opportunity."
He certainly wouldn't be pissed off now. Pang's success is unprecedented. Since the School moved to Covent Garden in 2012 his "Dim Sum to Knife Skills" and "Korean BiBimBap" classes have bagged him prizes at the 2014 British Cookery School Awards. He also launched the Oriental Culinary Institute, a three-week professional diploma, certified and accredited by the Confederation of Tourism and Hospitality and the first course of its kind in Europe on Asian cuisine.
Despite his success, the stereotyping follows Pang like a wok-shaped shadow. He's now a regular on Channel 4's Sunday Brunch but when they initially contacted him it was, of course, for Chinese New Year—a regular occurrence in Pang's media inbox. He went on to do a demonstration of hand-pulled noodles and afterwards, the producer asked if he'd stick around for the informal post-cook chat. And that's when the hosts started questioning him about Chinese horoscopes.
"I don't know anything about them, my mum has to remind me every year, but Tim [Lovejoy] and Simon [Rimmer] were like, 'What's the significance of the pig?' They then went round the table and asked me about every other guest. 'She's a pig. What's her story?'"
This is on live TV, completely unplanned. Pang either had to lie through his teeth or admit that he didn't know anything about horoscopes.
"I said, 'Guys, I'm not a Chinese historian' and we just started taking the piss out of each other," he remembers.
After the show, the producer asked Pang when he could come on next—not just for Chinese New Year.
"Now they always ask what I want to do," he says. "Not what they want me to do."
Wontons boiled until they bob in the water it's time to draw a line under it all. I pop a meaty morsel into my mouth and there's that crunch of the water chestnut and the succulent turkey. Pang gets out an aluminum container with a cardboard lid and spoons in the wontons.
"There you go. A proper Chinese takeaway," he laughs mischievously.