Belfast Telegraph

Gok Wan's Chinese takeaway

Ahead of his visit to Belfast on Friday, TV personality Gok Wan tells Rebecca Black why Oriental food is so good for us... and what he thinks of our cuisine

After bursting onto our television screens 10 years ago, Gok Wan aimed to transform our body image perceptions -- and now he is planning to do the same with how we see Chinese food. Although known for his fashion advice and mission to make women "look good naked", the half-Chinese 39-year-old from Leicester has branched out into designing glasses and clothes for Sainsburys as well as embracing his ethnicity, bringing us programmes about Chinese culture and cooking.

Growing up working in his father's Chinese takeaway, Gok doesn't try to defend the unhealthiness of fast food but insists that Asian cooking is about more than just deep fried fare and MSG.

This is the theme of his second cookbook, Gok's Wok, which he will be in Belfast to promote on Friday.

"The thing is there is always room for a good takeaway," he says.

"I don't want to do anyone out of any business, but as we know, with any fast food, whether that is Turkish food, Indian, Chinese or even English food when you create fast food, there is a reason why it is fast -- it's often got a lot of oil in there and a lot of salt -- a lot of Chinese takeaways use MSG.

"But real Asian food isn't like that. If you go to a family home, the food you get is often really nutritional, really healthy, with fresh ingredients, not deep fried everything.

"I come from a takeaway restaurant background, so I know why you have to do that -- because a lot of food has to be prepped beforehand, and if you deep fry it, it's going to be able to wait until you need to use it, whereas if you are cooking Chinese food at home it is often not fried at all."

Incredibly open about his life and struggles with bullies as an overweight teenager, the then 21-stone Gok slimmed down while studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama and is a passionate foodie.

Gok's wok is full of his own healthy Asian recipes which he insists are simple to make.

And he promises that if you can make a roast dinner, his recipes are a doddle.

"These recipes are the kind of food that I have eaten over the years and when I've travelled to Asia to show the wide array of really healthy, nutritious, delicious dishes," he explains.

"It is great to serve to other people but really good for you as well. I want to prove to everyone that it is not a complex cuisine at all really. You have to use a different set of disciplines when you're cooking because of the methods and different utensils, ie the wok, that you use. However, they are essentially ingredients that you would get from the local supermarket.

"If you can cook a roast dinner -- which I think is one of the hardest things to cook -- you can absolutely cook a meal for four when it comes to Chinese food."

Yet while Gok is clearly passionate about Asian food, he drew a blank when asked what he thought about Northern Irish food. "What are Northern Irish dishes, tell me," Gok pressed.

However, his trademark enthusiasm returned when given examples such as stews and breads, including potato and soda breads.

"Of course I've had soda bread and I love an Irish stew. Lamb Irish stew when I was growing up was one of my favourites. I used new potatoes, the baby ones, and they used to reduce down, beautifully," he recalls, but refuses to cast any judgement on its healthiness.

"I don't know enough about your cuisine to be honest," he says.

"I'd hate to say Northern Ireland is an unhealthy country because I don't think it is. I don't hear reports back from anyone saying it is."

Gok confesses that he has never spent more than a couple of hours in Northern Ireland.

"It's always a bit of a weird one because we used to fly into Belfast and then bomb down to Dublin. I never got to spend much time but it will be nice to come and say hello anyway," he says.

Similarly, Gok also has no views on whether or not Ulster women are stylish.

"It's a bit hard to say because I don't get to spend too much time in Northern Ireland and when I have been there, when I go to a book signing or event, people tend to be quite dressed up, so I see a very stylish part of Belfast," he adds.

But the fashion guru says he doesn't mind being stopped in the street to be asked his opinion on someone's outfit, which he claims happens "at least 50 times a day".

He says: "But I have been on TV for 10 years doing fashion so that's a long time. A lot of people have grown up with me, maybe from when they were 13 or 14 years old, and would have watched the shows with their mum. They are now 23-24. I would really miss it if people did not ask me about my job or for my advice."

Gok hasn't changed much since his early days on his breakthrough show How To Look Good Naked, greeting me over the phone with his trademark "how are you doing my lovely".

While fashion and cooking may not seem all that alike, Gok says both disciplines are all about him helping people which he is clearly loves.

"Writing a cookbook is exactly the same as giving advice on fashion -- it's still full of information, it's still creative," he says.

"I'm still very passionate about it. Whether it's teaching people how to cook or teaching people how to dress themselves, or teaching people about body confidence, that is a massive part of my life. It's part of who I am and I really enjoy helping people."

How To Look Good Naked shocked the nation as he persuaded women to strip off to their underwear to parade on a catwalk before shedding their final layer. But the show was also about showing women exactly how to dress for their body shape and make the most of themselves.

He strongly denies his approach is confrontational, viewing himself more as woman's 'Fairy Gok Mother'.

"My approach has always been to really build people's confidence up, whether by working with the government writing body confidence plans, or doing a one-on-one makeover. I wouldn't regard myself as being confrontational at all," he says.

Gok says he feels a revolution of body confidence has started, but argues there is still much more work to be done.

"I think our attitudes towards our bodies and towards fashion and our expectations have greatly changed, and I think that's a lot to do with knowing a lot more about what happens in the advertising industry and knowing what goes into making the images which appear in fashion magazines," he says.

"As a result people have reassessed what their expectations are, so when they are going out shopping they know what they are looking for now.

"But we definitely are not where we need to be. We still need to do a lot more work with that but I think the revolution has begun."

So what is next for the man whose advice ranges from what we wear to what we should eat?

The irrepressible stylist says he has a lot of ideas but isn't revealing any yet: "Oh my God, I have got so many things that I want to do, absolutely," he says.

"I am very lucky that within my job I am allowed to be very public about the stuff that I love, whether that is food or travel or fashion, I have often got either a TV show or book that will allow me to talk about it publicly.

"I would never profess to be a chef. I am not a chef, but I am a cook and I am a very passionate cook. And there is many people who share my passion. I am also very lucky that if I really love something, I have met enough people that I can talk to about it and say, let's do it, maybe TV?"

* Gok Wan will sign copies of his new book Gok's Wok, Edbury Press, price £20, at Easons, Donegall Place, Belfast, from 12.30pm on Friday

A ROCKY ROAD TO FAME

Gok Wan was born Kwokhyn Wan in Leicester to an English mother and Chinese father.

Growing up he worked in the family's Chinese restaurant. As a boy he was bullied due to his weight -- he reached 21 stone while still a teenager -- and his mixed race background.

Gok studied drama at the Central School Of Speech And Drama, but dropped out of the course, citing concerns about how his weight was dictating his life.

At the age of 20 he started crash dieting and was diagnosed with anorexia, but, with the help of his family, eventually found a healthy lifestyle and weight.

He initially worked as a fashion consultant before finding fame with his own show on Channel Four, How To Look Good Naked.

He went on to present Gok's Fashion Fix, Miss Naked Beauty, Gok Wan's Clothes Roadshow and more recently a cooking programme called Gok Cooks Chinese.

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