In the age of the celebrity chef, it seems that the only qualifications needed for a lucrative book deal or newspaper column are a brief appearance on a reality show, or a modelling career and the ability to operate a juicer. Not many of the current breed of glossy-haired, bright-eyed food gurus topping the bestseller lists can lay claim to playing a significant role in changing the eating habits of an entire nation, but Ching-He Huang certainly can.
She’d never suggest that herself – the 36-year-old multi-award winning, Emmy-nominated chef and entrepreneur is far too modest about her many achievements – but there’s no doubt that Ching has played a major part in changing the face of our high streets and lunch habits.
When she started her food business in 1999, producing ready-to-eat traditional Chinese and Taiwanese noodle dishes, Ching struggled to convince retailers to stock her meals; consumers wouldn’t know how to eat them, they said. Now, there’s a noodle bar on every corner, and it’s in no small part down to Ching’s belief that food could be done so much better.
“I bought a noodle salad from a well-known chain and I was so disappointed,” she says. “If I was buying it in Taiwan it would have some shredded egg in there, some hot spices, the whole works. It was so boring, but people were happy to hand over £3.50 for this little box of bland noodles.”
Although about to sit her final exams – Ching has a first class degree in economics from the University of London and spent time studying at the Bocconi Business School in Milan – she set about developing a product that would truly reflect the flavour and quality of the food that she had grown up with.
“I left Taiwan when I was just five years old, and spent six years in South Africa before my family moved to London,” explains Ching. “But my Taiwanese heritage and Chinese culture has always been very important to me. My families on both my mother’s and father’s side were farmers in Taiwan, and my grandmother regularly cooked for 25 people. I loved to watch my mother cook traditional Taiwanese and Chinese dishes at home, and I was tasked with cooking for the family when she spent weeks away on business. It’s something that’s always been there, this love and passion for food and fresh, quality ingredients.”
Although Ching had a very strong business ethic instilled in her by her father – his family invested their life savings into sending him to university – she had no desire to follow her fellow economics alumni into the City.
“When my professor asked me what I was going to do when I graduated, I started to panic,” says Ching. “My friends were all talking about becoming management accountants or city bankers, and the thought of it filled me with dread. We’d had tough times growing up, my father was very hardworking and ran his own import and export business, but the recession in the early 1990s had hit us hard and times were very tough. I didn’t want to start as a junior in a bank and have to work my way up, I wanted to do something there and then. I’d spent years working hard at my education, I’d kept several part-time jobs going all at the same time, and I needed to do something that I loved that I could make a success out of.”
Ching started her business, which she named Fuge Foods, from her kitchen at home, creating sample recipes, developing her brand and packaging, and taking her products to high-street retailers and distributors – all while still at university. “I’d made the decision that I wanted to do this, and I knew I just had to “make the onion” as we say in Taiwan. I had to go for it.”
There were set backs – when she received her first major order, Ching had to quickly find commercial premises to produce her food, and then realised she had no way of transporting 500 units of her product across London – but her determination to succeed meant she found solutions. Profits were ploughed straight back into the business, and it quickly became a huge success, selling 5,000 fresh, hand-made noodle salads every day.
It was while she was at the height of Fuge Foods’ success that Ching met her husband, the actor Jamie Cho, who at the time had links with the UK Food Channel. “He said you work so hard and you’re so passionate, come and talk about your food on one of our shows,” remembers Ching. “They had a flagship cooking show called Good Food Live, and they asked me to prepare a vegetarian dish.”
Ching was a natural in front of the camera, and welcomed the opportunity to share her passion for good food with a wider audience. “I was a little sceptical at first, because they told me I wasn’t allowed to mention my business,” she says. “I thought, what’s the point of being on TV if I can’t promote my product? But then I realised I loved the freedom of being able to talk naturally about food, how to cook and how to choose ingredients without being limited to a business marketing strategy.
“Chinese people say you have people in your life called destiny people – these are the people who give you knowledge and support you. No-one goes through life with all the knowledge, you have to take risks and pick it up along the way. All the people I met through Fuge Foods and everything I’ve done since have helped me to become the person I am, and helped me to get where I am today.”
And where that is is a very good place indeed. Ching has starred in nine cookery shows made for the UK and USA and aired around the world, including Exploring China with the godfather of Chinese cooking, Ken Hom, in which the pair travelled 3000 miles across the country to discover its recipes, its people and its culture.
She’s a regular contributor to national and international newspapers and magazines, has won numerous awards for her TV shows and books and was even nominated for an Emmy, for her show Easy Chinese – New York and LA.
But despite the hugely successful media career, it’s Ching’s books that reflect her true passion for Chinese cooking. Her seventh book, Eat Clean: Wok Yourself to Health, was released in 2015 and encapsulates the values that Ching has applied throughout her successful cooking career.
“This book is really to try and remind people about how to eat and how to source quality ingredients – it’s all about the quality ingredients,” she says.
And although she’s passionate about food for health, Ching doesn’t advocate the western message of giving up entire food groups and eschewing dairy, gluten and meat, delivered by the aforementioned clean-eating brigade. Instead, she firmly believes that it’s the food itself that should be clean – free of preservatives, and not fed with steroids and antibiotics.
“I’ve never suffered from allergies or food intolerances, and neither has anyone in my family,” says Ching. “Then, in 2011, I began suffering from awful symptoms – coming out in hives, bloating enormously, gaining weight. There was no pattern to it, it could be triggered by anything from a piece of meat to a glass of wine.”
After extensive tests, Ching discovered she was allergic to sulphites, a common preservative used by food and drink manufacturers.
“There are so many invisible chemicals added to food in the way it’s produced and processed,” she says. “Nuts are sprayed with mould inhibitors, dried fruits are treated with sulphates, animals are pumped full of antibiotics. When an animal is intensively farmed and routinely treated with drugs, that all remains in the meat that you eat, along with all the stress hormones it produced.
“For the next generation we really need to change the way we live and eat and consume; we need to consume less chemicals, and just consume less full stop. We need to be more ecological and sustainable, we can’t keep taking from the planet and not giving back. Eating well isn’t about excluding whole sections of food from our diet; it’s making sure what you eat is as pure as it can possibly be. If we become more conscious about eating food that hasn’t been intensively farmed with pesticides and chemicals, we can start to change things.”
The answer, says Ching, lies in preparing food in the same way her grandparents did when she was a child on their farm in Taiwan.
“Historically, the way we ate in China and Asia is so much better than the habits we have now, “ she says. “Everyone was much more resourceful, and one fish would feed a family, there wouldn’t be one fillet each.
“For students, this way of eating is so much cheaper and more sociable than junk food, and it’s nothing like the fat-filled takeaways you see in the UK. Get together with friends and have lots of variety and have a little of everything. Fill your plate with grains and vegetables, eat fresh food of lots of different colours and share a small piece of meat or fish between you. It’s economical, it’s better for your health and it’s much more fun. Plus, if you eat well, you function well and you have more clarity of mind than you do if your diet is limited to just one food group.”
After travelling the world and sampling some of the finest cuisine top chefs have to offer, Ching’s tastes haven’t strayed far from her childhood roots.
“I love a simple, honest, Chinese style egg-drop soup,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, as long as I’ve got a tiny plug-in stove I can always make it, it’s so simple, cheap and nutritious. Just a few tomatoes, couple of eggs, some spring onions, soy sauce, spinach or broccoli, even leftover bacon if you want meat. Add a few noodles and it’s a one-pot bowl of comfort.”