Jimi catches up with the acclaimed British-born chef behind the only Chinese restaurant outside Asia with two Michelin stars, Andrew Wong.
Discover the memorable role a restaurant photocopier played in his childhood, witnessing his dad’s unique experience as a Chinese pub landlord in London’s East End, and what impact the recent pandemic’s “Chinese virus” had on him and his family.
Jimi Famurewa: Welcome to Where's Home Really? With me, Jimi Famurewa; a podcast that digs deep into the culture and heritage of some amazing people and aims to discover what home really means to them. These conversations with my brilliant guests are my chance to meet people from so many other different backgrounds who have their own unique experiences and their own emotional responses to the question, Where's Home Really? Here are the rules. Every week, I'll be asking my guests to tell me four key elements that help define for them that unique and fascinating sense of home. Those four elements are a person, a place, a phrase, and a plate. Let's go and meet today's guest.
Andrew Wong: My father spent a lot of time as we grew up taking us to a lot of restaurants, because he used to go look, all Chinese restaurants in the UK, they're pretty much the same. Let's go look at other restaurants. And let's see how we can learn from them and speak like them and walk like them and talk like them.
I remember that he went through a phase of trying to speak like British royal aristocracy. Absolutely ridiculous because he actually looked like he had marbles in his mouth when he was speaking.
Jimi Famurewa: Today I'm talking to Andrew Wong. A celebrated chef and restauranteur and the owner of A. Wong in Pimlico, central London. The only Chinese restaurant outside of Asia with two Michelin stars. You may also recognize him from BBC One's MasterChef. Andrew found himself in the kitchen professionally after taking a very unusual route for a chef via studying chemistry at Oxford and social anthropology at the London School of Economics.
But how has his Chinese and British heritage informed his acclaimed and unique style of cooking and impacted his life more generally? I am very excited to find out. Andrew, hello.
Andrew Wong: Oh, I'm feeling a lot of pressure now. Am I going to sound intriguing and interesting?
Jimi Famurewa: No. I think you've got nothing to worry about there.
You put on your chef whites as we started the call, which I felt was like, absolutely what you want from a chef. How are things going?
Andrew Wong: Yeah. The chef whites are on only because I've been expecting this call. So I didn't put my chef whites on in fear of getting them dirty. I've actually just run back from the restaurant having made 96 of the 110 dumplings that I need to complete.
Jimi Famurewa: Oh, wow. I wanted to start and just lock in on that question that's in the title of the show. Where's home really? I wonder what your first thought is when you hear those words, or if there's any times in your life when you've been faced with that question, or versions of that question. What does it make you think of?
Andrew Wong: It's an incredible question. It's something that I grapple with all the time. And now that I have kids, and my kids basically go to the same primary school that I went to. And I get to see my experience of childhood transposed on top of their one. And I look at my identity through their experience of it.
Where my parents used to say, you're never really English. I never really understood it. But then as I got later on in life and as China opened up, they also said Chinese people are never going to accept you being Chinese. And so I was that's good. I'm nothing, but actually as I've grown older, I think that it's not nothing.
What it is that people of second, third generation and immigrants, I think we have a very unique position in the sense that we kind of straddle both cultures. And I'm just one of the very few who get to explore this., in a way and bridge two ends of this culture through a medium, which is an expression of my own childhood, which is food in my case.
Jimi Famurewa: I can just relate to it so much, like that notion of being caught between, and I think so many other people can relate to it that are second or third generation immigrants. You are in the restaurant that your parents owned, running it as a restaurateur. And I mentioned that, your're a third generation restaurateur, your grandparents or your grandfather ran a restaurant in Chinatown.
Is that right? Yes.
Andrew Wong: Yeah.
Jimi Famurewa: Take us back to growing up in that restaurant environment. What are your kind of really core memories of it? And what sort of status did it hold in the life of your family, of your parents? Talk us through what feelings that sense of home evokes.
Andrew Wong: The most important thing I can say about my particular upbringing and childhood was that home wasn't in the home.
My home was the restaurant. We would go to school, go, we didn't go home, we'd go back to the restaurant and then we'll sit on the bar and we'll do our homework on the bar and the staff would teach us how to do our homework. And that very much was my upbringing after school until my mother came back from her other job and she would work in a restaurant and we would sit downstairs locked in the office. And my sister and I'd be really bored because we finished our homework.
And so I remember there was a photocopier in the office, this tiny office. And so we started photocopying body parts on the photocopier just to pass time. And then my mom, when she finished work, she would take us home and then we'd just sleep. And then we'd wake up again. And my wife and I laugh at this now, but I used to go to school by myself, walk to school by myself when I was seven.
And that's what we did. And then we'd go to school, go back to the restaurant again. And so the memories of home, a lot of the time were either the restaurant or they were places that weren't actually my house.
Jimi Famurewa: Let's lock in on the person then, the person that you have chosen to bring as, as your real reminder your touchstone to this sense of home.
Andrew Wong: Initially, when I looked at the question I thought I was definitely my grandmother. My grandmother was the one who was the great cook and stuff, but then when I thought about it and I thought about, as a parent now, especially be the definition of a home. I actually think it's probably not my grandma.
I think it's probably my wife and my wife's family. My wife's family actually from the Seychelles. Creole, a massive mix of multiple different countries where Indian, Chinese, everything. My family were very education orientated and work orientated and family never really was a priority. It was never like. Let's go spend family time together. It was like, let's go work in a restaurant together. And it was my wife and her family that really taught me what it meant to have a family and what it meant to spend a lot of time with one another, what it was to cook and to love each other and to have each other's back.
If you mess with one, you mess with the whole family. And that, if anything, has stuck with me for the past 20 years. And that's the idea of home I want to give to my children.
Jimi Famurewa: Yeah, that's beautiful. And I think in terms of learning things in adult life, and you realize the way in which you've been raised is, for all its benefits, and you don't know any different, and it's your family, and that's your culture, and you're fiercely proud of it.
But then there are things that as you start, building your own home and building your own sense of home for maybe children or a partner that you realize, Oh, wow, like this is a nicer way of doing it. This is better for me. This is better for my kind of soul and spirit. I wonder with your parents and the family and it being so work orientated, what was driving that?
Andrew Wong: It's a domino effect.
So everything that I do now is like a softened down version of what my parents did. And what they did is a softened down version of my grandparents. And I think number one, education has always been the most important part of my family. It was about representing the family, which in turn meant representing the community, which in turn meant representing the culture.
And I know it sounds a bit big and a bit OTT, but my family, my grandfather, was in the military and was a refugee into Hong Kong into Diamond Hill and that identity of being Chinese or what Chinese stood for in a time as well after that, where Chinese was a developing country where it became a superpower and how he navigated that time.
As being part of being China, but also having some reservations about being part of China. It, that constant thing, that pride that it was of who are you and what do you stand for? That was such an important part of my family, I think. Both my grandfather and my father used to constantly, hang on a minute.
First of all, you must speak Chinese. You must speak Chinese. Don't speak to me in English. You must speak Chinese. Number one. Number two, it was always like. Our family, our roots are Chinese, our roots are Chinese, you must understand this, we must understand our cultural heritage, we must understand the small things, you must call up your grandparents on Chinese New Year, you must remember the day of the death, you must remember Mid Autumn Festival.
Jimi Famurewa: How did you react to that? How did you feel about it when you were a kid and when you, as you were saying, you were getting into trouble at school here and there?
Andrew Wong: I hated it. Absolutely hated it because I hated Chinese school, I remember, because it was on Saturdays. So it was like, I don't need this Chinese stuff, I can do everything in English.
And my parents were like, no, eventually you will go back to China, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And lo and behold, I failed Chinese and ended up bunking Saturday school for years.
Jimi Famurewa: But then, where would you go when you bunk?
Andrew Wong: I used to go to my friend's house down the road and we used to, I think it was play Mario Kart or something.
I don't remember what we were doing. I'll do kick ups in the street but then again, lo and behold, I got to adulthood and I was going to China and I was like, Oh, if only I had paid more attention in Chinese school. I drastically tried to relearn Chinese again. And it was such a pain. My sister moved out to Shanghai to relearn Chinese and to improve it. And I never got to do it because I went to school, I went to uni. And food really has been my way of reconnecting to my culture more than anything.
Jimi Famurewa: As we talk about the language in Chinese school, I feel like this is an appropriate time to talk about your phrase that you've brought. I don't know whether it will be Chinese, it might be in English. The phrase or saying, or something that someone would tell you that, that really does evoke or, yeah, capture this sense.
Andrew Wong: There were two, but they were both effectively explaining the same thing. My grandfather remembered this, and me and my cousin and my sister who grew up together, we always remember this phrase, and it's basically, education is the only thing in the world that people can't take away from you. And my dad was a bit of a show off when I was growing up.
He used to buy like nice cars and buy like nice watches and all that stuff. And my grandfather was the complete opposite. And he said, all that stuff, it means nothing. That can be removed in a second. The only thing that can't be taken away from you in life is your education. Yeah. Which is why, and my entire family, like my sister, my, me, myself and my cousin.
We were the generation where there was so much pressure upon us constantly to do well at school. And it was that was fundamentally what drove all the advice and family time and family economics was basically all driven towards making sure that we had an education.
Jimi Famurewa: Again, I'm nodding and nodding because I think so many people relate to that and that idea of it being, the silver bullet.
That's a really powerful phrase and an interesting one in the way that you've, I noticed that the celebrated food writer and recipe author Diana Henry described you as an educator in an interview that she did with you in a piece that she wrote about you. And it does really feel like you, in that beautiful way, using food as a vehicle to educate not just yourself but diners that come in and broaden people's horizons and expand that knowledge of Chinese culture.
And that really did come, as I say, from that moment, your father's passing. You were so young. What are your memories of that? And I know it's a while ago now, but what was your memory of that moment? And did you realize instantly, I need to go back. I need to help my mother with the business.
Or was that something that you were at all conflicted about?
Andrew Wong: Every generation, tries to do a little bit better than a generation before. And I think my parents, in a weird kind of way, drilled us to be as unemotional as possible. And it's a really weird one. It was like, you must not cry. You must not moan.
You must not do that. And in a weird kind of way, it was always like work education. Whatever happens beyond that, friends, family, birth, death, it doesn't matter. The show continues. And a weird kind of way I look at my wife, for example, who's like hyper emotional. I guess emotional about everything.
And she must look at me just I am stone cold. And I just remember, even when my dad died, it was a sad moment. I remember I was enrolling for university that day. And I had two very good friends of me at the time. And I remember I just picked up my NUS card for that year. I remember I was looking at it and I got a call saying my dad had just passed away.
And he was just like, Oh, cause he'd been sick for about three months. And then afterwards, I remember there were floods of time where I got emotional about it. Yeah. A lot, if I compare it to my wife, actually, I must come across absolutely no pulse, no emotion.
Jimi Famurewa: No, but I think you're absolutely right in that you're a product and this is another kind of way that, that idea of home and that idea of our culture and heritage kind of has this kind of long shadow throughout our lives, doesn't it?
Because it's the way that you're brought up and I can definitely relate to internalizing this sense of that I needed to be able to handle things and be stoic and not really reveal emotions and be tough and then you carry that into life and yeah, you interact with other people. I think of my wife and other people that I know and they let it all out.
The thing that I'm so full of admiration for and I'm interested in is that you're literally holding the NUS card. You've got this totem of your future. And, you've been, you been discouraged from being involved with the restaurant. You didn't really want to be involved with that.
And then suddenly you're pulled back in and then you embark on this literal journey, but also a figurative journey of rediscovery, right?
Andrew Wong: Yeah, I think that's exactly the right word. Rediscovery is exactly the right word. As I said, I went to university basically to keep my parents off my back. I'd got thrown out, I'd been thrown out of Oxford because I'd flunked my prelims.
And then my dad said, all right, you're X, Y, Z, I won't say what those words were in English and in Chinese multiple times at every family engagement, every time there was like one of his friends about he would make sure I come out, sit down and remind me again what a mess up I was. But then he said, go be a lawyer.
And so I applied to LSE, because my friend was there. There was a course, Anthropology and Law. And I thought, now I'll get him off my back. I'll do Law and Anthropology. But I never enrolled for Law and Anthropology, I only enrolled for Anthropology. But he didn't know. He didn't even know what Anthropology was, I'm pretty sure, at the time.
So that's the only reason I went to university. Because in all honesty, I got to a stage. Where number one, I only went to Oxford because I wanted to know whether or not I could get in. And then I did it. I was like, damn, I did it. And then I got in and I forgot to study. And then the whole idea of university to me was never really about enriching myself in that subject.
I could have studied anything really, right? Because it was about applying myself and working hard to achieve a goal. It would be graduation would be the goal, right? And when I got into the restaurant industry, it was the same. It was like, let's find a goal. And so first of all, it was like my mother at the time was in the industry.
And let's go in and let's find out what we can learn first. I didn't know how to cook at the time. So it was just like let's help out front of the house. And anyone can put a plate on the table. And until you actually realize that it's not that simple. And then I started thinking, okay this food, it's nice.
But. As I said, my, my father spent a lot of time as we grew up taking us to a lot of restaurants. He's al, he always uses this Chinese phrase. It means basically like experience. But if you take up the two words that it means, then it means to know, so to see and to know, the two together mean life experience.
And he used to take us to restaurants because he used to go look. All Chinese restaurants in the UK, they're pretty much the same. Let's go and look at other restaurants and see how they do things. And let's see how we can learn from them and speak like them and walk like them and talk like them.
I remember that. He got, he went through a phase of trying to speak like British royal aristocracy.
He just sounded absolutely ridiculous because he actually looked like he had marbles in his mouth when he was speaking all the time. And he couldn't help it because he was aspiring to that.
For like a few months I remember we used to laugh at it.
Jimi Famurewa: That to me sounds like a moment of joy and laughter from your youth.
Andrew Wong: If I compare my dad to my mom or my dad to other peers of his, I think that his outlook in life was very different. I think his outlook on, on, in what way, put it this way he had a pub in the East End in the 70s where his car used to get burnt during the night because he would offend one of the drinkers in the pub.
And it was in the East End, it was in Birmingham, when Birmingham was rough. And so his interaction with British culture. wasn't like the Chinese takeaway interaction where it was very much kind of very individual and it was very, this is just what we do and we're just serving the public.
When you run a pub, it's not about that. You are constantly trying to be part of that area, trying to find out what's going on. You become part of our culture. And so I think that his entire interaction with Britain I think was quite unique for a Chinese immigrant. And I think that kind of put my sister, myself, and my cousin in a very unique position as we were growing up.
Jimi Famurewa: Welcome back to Where's Home Really? With me, Jimmy Famurewa, and my guest, Andrew Wong. As part of your studies initially and when you were in the process of helping out the restaurant you embark on this journey to China to learn about different regional cuisines and deepen your understanding of it.
What was that trip like? Because have you been back to China at this point much or was this quite a formative, defining trip back?
Andrew Wong: So we used to go back to Hong Kong a lot. When we were kids, put it this way, China was always a place that you don't go to because it's, it was a closed place.
It was like, your parents were going, you're going to get kidnapped there. You're never going to come back alive. They're going to, they're going to steal your body parts.
Jimi Famurewa: Again is mixed messages about your home. Exactly. It's you have to be very proud of this place, but do not go back there at any point.
Andrew Wong: Hong Kong is safe. China is bad at this point in time. But then I remember it was post Beijing Olympics, really more than anything. It was, then my parents said, okay, you can go back. My sister had moved back and she'd lived in Shanghai for a few years. And I, more than anything, just wanted to reconnect.
Jimi Famurewa: What is your plate?
What is the dish? I feel like this is probably the trickiest one, or was it not? Was it straightforward? What have you gone for? What's the dish that evokes this idea of home for you?
Andrew Wong: This is the only dish I'm pretty sure that has stayed with all my menus throughout.
All the restaurants that we've opened in my cooking career, even though it's changed in different forms, is basically smacked cucumber. If anyone doesn't know, basically it's a refrigerated cucumber, where instead of cutting it, what you do is smash it with the side of a cleaver to basically bruise the inside.
And then once you bruise the inside, you salt it, then you wash the salt off to remove some of the moisture. And then because it's been bruised, It soaks up all the soy, chili, vinegar, sesame mix more so than if you just cut the veg. And what you end up with is this really crunchy, soft, fresh, tangy, spicy salad, basically.
And it's the thing that my grandmother used to always have lying in the fridge. And actually, to this day, again, it evokes some food memories more than anything. I still don't think that any version I've ever made... is as good as the one little bowl of leftover that she always had lying in the corner of her fridge.
And for some reason, she would always eat it. She would cook the most elaborate dinners. Like proper grandmas, if you say... Oh, I really like that, Grandma. For the next 20 years, you're eating that dish, right? Every time you come to the house. She'll have made it specially, even if it's something that takes like an entire weekend or a week.
And she'll have this array of different chicken, fresh chicken soups where you should go to the local farming and eating. And she would kill the chicken and they'll still be like chicken uterus and semi hatching eggs, like floating in this soup. Yeah, but there'd be these big banquets, but always on the side.
She wouldn't eat very much. She would always eat the fish head. She would eat the chicken head and then she would just eat this cucumber relish on the side with white rice. And she would have spent like half a day in the kitchen. We're all eating everything. She's eating the fish head, the chicken head.
and just this cucumber salad on the side.
Jimi Famurewa: Yeah. And that's the dish I think. My mum's the same. I think for her the meal is, the nourishment is everybody enjoying themselves. Smacked cucumber is an amazing choice and it does make me think because it's something that you see on a lot of menus now.
I'm sure that, probably comes in for a fair bit of abuse and it isn't, it's quite far from your, like your grandmother's version in some way. That really interests me in the sense of that being something that, that has moved from the home and from domesticity and from Chinese home cooking traditions in some ways out into the world of restaurants and I've seen people that grew up in Chinese takeaway environments, and Angela Hoy wrote that great book Takeaway, which came out recently, talking about that disconnect between what they were serving, which was often Anglo Cantonese, and what they would eat at home.
Did you grow up with that sense of, oh no, this is for selling, this is business, this is what we actually eat and cherish? Was, were the dishes quite different?
Andrew Wong: The only real home cooking I ever really ate was from my grandmother and now it's probably twice a year, three times a year.
Was it different? Yeah, it was different. My perspective growing up, I saw the restaurant as this massive hindrance to family life. But when you see stuff like chips on menus, OK sauce, menus of 300 items, what I see more than anything is the Chinese communities. Entrepreneurial spirit and that, that hustling spirit which was indoctrinated into myself and my sister and my cousin from a very young age.
No matter what happens. Whether it be a Gulf War, recession, whatever it is, you just have to make, you have to make something happen. You have to make it work. Yeah. You can't sit there and wait.
Jimi Famurewa: I want to get onto your place, that space or place in time that really makes you think of this kind of sense of home and this idea of home. Is it the restaurant?
Andrew Wong: That would have been the easy one, right? I had them in, I had them in kind of order, like number one restaurant, number two, someplace in Hong Kong that I grew up with and spent a lot of time with.
It's probably my friend's, one of my best friend's doorsteps. He's quintessentially British. And not only is he British, he's a British vegan, right? Like the complete opposite to me. And he's the most laid back guy. We used to always go to his doorstep. And we have a third friend who we spend a lot of time with.
The three of us, we spend a lot of time. When you sit down with friends and you just, you talk about the most random things, which are relevant to your day. But as you reflect backwards as a grown adult, I'm 40 now. You actually really cherish those moments when you had your first driving class, talking about, girlfriends or experiences.
I think that if anything, I never really had a home in the sense of, I never spoke about this stuff with my parents, for example, but it was with my two mates on that doorstep. That I think really encapsulates what I would like my kids to have when they talk about family. You laugh about the stupid things you've done.
You laugh about your shortcomings and your friends just laugh with you. mock you, and then you just move on, right? And that to me has been a time which has really grounded my friendships in, future life.
Jimi Famurewa: Absolutely beautiful. And I'm really glad that you went for that. And I really love that you didn't go for somewhere in Hong Kong, although I'm sure that is very meaningful to you.
I recognize that as well when people ask this stuff. Sometimes I'm like, Oh, I want to talk about Lagos. Oh, I want to talk about Nigerian culture. But then quite often it is, it's the 89 bus or it's these things that are very much products of the British part of me and that kind of life.
Speaking of which I really want to know the impact the Chinese culture and the Chinese diasporas has had. on British life and the UK, and it can be related to food, but it could be bigger than that. I think there's been a lot of useful discussion post pandemic. There was so much negativity and like xenophobia around that time, and it was concentrated a lot of the time on food businesses.
I wondered what your take on that was and how that is seen in British life.
Andrew Wong: be a seven hour discussion.
Jimi Famurewa: Yeah, we can go and go.
Andrew Wong: But I think again, I think the easiest way that I try to process the last few years, what you're discussing eating bats and the Chinese virus and stuff like that is, is by looking at my kids.
And I look at how Chinese culture has integrated into British culture throughout my lifetime. And so when I went to school, I always tried to shy away from my Chineseness in the sense that you wanna be British. I'm at a British school. I want to be British. I want to be amazing at every English speaking subject.
And I want to be rubbish at Chinese. And then that will show them.
Jimi Famurewa: That will show them somehow.
Andrew Wong: And when my friends looked at me, I remember this as a kid, I was always the Chinese kid. Number one, if I look at my kids now, when they see their friends and the same school that I went to now very multinational, like all over the world, when they describe their friends, oh, he's a new friend.
They never ever talk about nationality first, or race first, they talk about the kid who likes football, or the kid who's naughty, or the kid with ginger hair. That's the one thing I look at. And the second thing I look at is I look at I have a good friend who has a like a Chinese supermarket around the corner from my restaurant.
The number of kids, especially, who go into this Chinese shop to order dumplings, to order bubble tea. To buy nori seaweed, to buy fish skin crisps with egg yolk powder on top, I, to me that it just sings that there is change and of course with any change, it takes time. And there's going to be people who are not happy at the speed of change.
If I look at the 30 year gap between my generation and my kids' generation, I see change, and I see change for the better. There's now, an Oscar nominee for best actor, which I think is incredible. Would this have happened 30 years ago? Of course it wouldn't. And if I look at the fields of art, The fields of technology, the fields of media, the fields of TV, the fields of restaurants, whatever it is, you see so much more representation.
I always wanted to be someone who really focused on a craft and tried my best to be the best at a craft in hope that if other people of my generation look at what we do, might go, Oh, he's done all right it's possible, owning a restaurant doesn't just have to be running a takeaway. And I think that is the journey which I'm most proud of in my lifetime. The way the Chinese community is integrating into British culture and the way Chinese culture is integrating itself into everyday British norms, as I said, I remember when I was growing up, my friends would be looking at me like, what is wrong with you?
What are you? They'd open my fridge, there'd be fermented bean curd in there. they'd be like, oh, no thanks. What is dying in there? Yeah.
Jimi Famurewa: Now everyone wants to ferment.
Andrew Wong: Exactly. Everybody wants to make their own kimchi. Now apparently fermentation started in 2020, apparently. And not 3, 000 years ago, there weren't so many pigeonholes, us, them, other, there are advantages to it.
There are also disadvantages to it. Because as I said, when I look at my kids, I don't want them to have an unclear understanding of food. I want them to know that they have British heritage, as beautiful as it is for everyone to be homogenized. Sometimes, difference is beautiful. And I think sometimes people automatically equate difference to being bad.
I don't think that's true. Difference is wonderful.
Jimi Famurewa: We didn't even have time to talk about the two Michelin stars, which is amazing. Andrew Wong, thank you so much for your time. That's been fantastic. I feel like we could talk and talk. Maybe we'll do part two. Thank you, Andrew.
It's a pleasure,
Andrew Wong: thank you for having me.
Jimi Famurewa: Oh my god, Andrew Wong. What an absolute hero. Funny, outrageous, honest, unfiltered. I could relate to so much of it and I really feel that so many people can. Bunking off school and playing Mario Kart and spraying yourself down with Lynx Africa. Journey back to our, ancestral home and reconnecting with that part of ourselves in later life.
That to me is at the core of what I feel, what I think so many people that are second or third generation immigrants feel. And so I think that was just what was really great to hear. But also just to learn so much about the intricacies of Chinese culture and Andrew's story and his place within that history.
So that's it for another episode of Where's Home Really? With me, Jimmy Famurewa. See you next time where I catch up with a well known name and discover what home really means to them. And I'd love you to follow Where's Home Really? on your favorite podcast platform. And while you're there, why not catch up on my eye opening chats with other guests, including BAFTA winning TV presenter and rapper Big Zuu, taboo breaking chef Asma Khan, and comedian Stephen K. Amos.
From Podimo and Listen, this has been Where's Home Really? hosted by me, jimmy Famurewa, the producers are Tayo Popoola and Aidan Judd. The executive producers for Podimo are Jake Chudnow and Matt White. And for Listen, it's Kellie Redmond.