It’s often said that if you’ve got a good teacher, you’re halfway there. So it’s reassuring to know chef Jeremy Pang, founder of (and tutor at) cookery school School of Wok is a firm friend of fresh fruit and veg. We talk to the Chinese specialist chef about his inspiring journey, so far
It's quite a unique quality to be able to put someone perfectly at ease, but Pang, also an author and ambassador of the London Produce Show and Conference 2015 (LPS15), does it effortlessly whether he’s being interviewed by Produce Business UK or teaching you how to cook really good Chinese food.
His calming aura, sharp instinctive business and marketing senses, as well as his strong network of loved ones and longstanding friends seem to be the key to this chef's success with the popular central London-based School of Wok and beyond.
Pang not only makes cooking Chinese food sound easy by breaking it down into authentic techniques, he makes everything sound easy – from starting a business to putting on an interactive cookery class for 100 people.
It was his now wife, Dee, who first suggested Pang would be a dab hand at cookery classes. At the time, his focus lay elsewhere and he dismissed it, despite coming from a food business background. His Chinese father and grandmother ran a Chinese takeaway and his mother’s family was behind Ho’s Bakery in Manchester.
In fact, though, his parents wanted a different life for him.
“In Chinese families, you want your children to be lawyers, doctors and accountants,” laughs Pang. “One of my sisters is a lawyer, another is a doctor. I was no good with figures, so I did a biochemical engineering degree, then went into marketing.”
But food was never that far from Pang’s mind. He took two summer jobs a year whilst at university in Bath, mostly as a kitchen porter or commis chef. After going through bookmakers Ladbrokes’ marketing graduate scheme straight after university, Pang was still hungry for catering and made a very determined decision by enrolling in London’s Le Cordon Bleu cuisine diploma for “the discipline”.
At the same time, in search of a more holistic business view of a catering business, Pang worked front of house at a restaurant in Harrow. “I didn’t really want to be a chef exactly,” explains Pang, who didn’t enjoy the bravado that often comes hand in hand with professional kitchens. “I spent four months doing front of house, as I wanted to get to grips with every part of the business and understand what it all entailed. Money was low after finishing Le Cordon Bleu and also researching a food and travel book in Thailand that was shelved due to the recession, so I did a stint in marketing again, this time with Samsung.”
A little help from his friends
Redundancy in 2009 gave Pang the time and space to think seriously about Dee’s suggestion. He started putting some feelers out for offering cookery tutoring in customers’ own homes.
“The name and concept was born out of a dinner party that went on late at the home of a university friend,” says Pang. “It was about the time of the Jack Black film School of Rock and it really encapsulated that fun, yet professional vibe, that the school now has. Then I needed a good website and brand, and a friend designed the logo we still use now.”
The next two-and-a-half years saw the chef go from home to home, teaching the average cook how to recreate Chinese meals. “It started slowly at first,” says Pang, who relied on interest from friends of friends. “Then Google took over and soon 60% of my customers were coming through Google searches. I realised how many people were looking for what I was offering: to cook oriental food themselves. I started by teaching them to cook whatever they wanted – even if they didn’t know exactly what it was. Some people would describe the dish they had experienced at some point and I would recreate it.”
It was when business partner, events manager and family friend Neville Leaning came on board in 2010, that Pang started teaching larger classes. After doing a food tour and cookery lesson day in Bath and various Air Asia events, serving one thousand people a day, the pair soon realised it was the communication and entertainment factor that people, including themselves, liked.
This led to starting a ‘Flavours of China’ workshop, where customers would visit Soho’s Chinatown with Pang to get the ingredients they needed, before having lunch at restaurant Ping Pong, while the chef set up a cookery class for 10. The eager cooks would then prepare dishes alongside Pang and enjoy the results with wine for dinner.
“The way we set up the School of Wok facility here in Covent Garden was through our savings and funding through collaborations with Lee Kum Kee and AEG,” says Pang, who works on a quid-pro-quo basis with kitchen appliance company AEG, as well as Symphony Kitchens, Zwilling and the Hong Kong Tourist Board. “This is where my marketing background came into its own as I built relationships with companies that I felt our business should be associated with.”
He will be launching his first cookery book, Chinese Unchopped, at the London Produce Show and Conference 2015. Pang’s association with the London Produce Show and Conference came via a cookery pupil from the house-to-house days, Produce Business UK’s sales manager Linda Bloomfield. “Linda was a regular customer and used to have a cookery session every month,” explains Pang, who frequents nearby Chinatown for his cookery school supplies because his orders are too low in volume for wholesalers to deliver.
“Linda was such a help and a big fruit and veg fan herself. She put me in touch with Asian vegetable grower, David Lam, who is such a generous and warm-hearted person and so passionate about food. I factored an hour for our first meeting and we ended up talking about veg for seven hours. He sends me new stuff to try and then I order it through the supermarkets in Chinatown.”
Pang plans to showcase Lam’s wares at the LPS15 during his demo and media masterclass. “As I am launching Chinese Unchopped at the show; I will cook a few dishes from that, but I’ve tweaked to fit in more of the experimental vegetables that David is presenting,” says Pang, who uses David’s produce for his School of Wok supper clubs.
“I am excited about being the LPS ambassador as it’s quite new and, if David is anything to go by, the show will be full of passionate people. Traditionally, there is an unspoken barrier between trade and consumer, but I think that can be broken down pretty quickly with understanding and enthusiasm.”
Foodie factfile: Jeremy Pang
A good dish is… balanced. It’s all about flavour, texture and colour.
Best fruit dish: Duck breast and pomegranate salad.
Best veg dish: Pickled lotus root and Chinese pink spinach (as featured in Chinese Unchopped).
Most useful fruit or veg: Chinese pear. The juice can be squeezed out to tenderise meat or fish.
Latest find: Freshwater pondweed, Tonho, which is peppery and stalky, and not jelly-like as seaweed might be.
Must-have ingredient: Own-made five spice with anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel, garlic powder or dried mandarin peel.
Favourite meal at home: Whole steamed fish with kai choy and choy sum that’s blanched then stir-fried.
My average week is… not average. Last week, I taught at an AEG private media event day, then had a day filming with Food Network, spent a day on emails and marketing and then did a day teaching classes at School of Wok, as well as a day planning this year’s Taste of London.
Favourite fruit and veg: Pea shoots, sweetheart cabbage, lotus root, [mustard green] kai choy, Chinese celery and mandarin.