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China Daily Website

Food entrepreneur turned celebrity chef

Updated: 2012-03-21 21:23
By Cecily Liu (

LONDON - Ching-he Huang is the face of Chinese cooking on British TV. From "Ching's Kitchen" to "Chinese Food Made Easy", her skilful hands and thorough narrations have made the century long mysteries of Chinese food practical for average British families. Travelling wok-in-hand from London to Scotland, Ching produced dish after dish of authentic Chinese with a slight twist, a subtle adaptation, and a local touch that made the oriental cuisine familiar and fun.

Food entrepreneur turned celebrity chef
Ching-he Huang [Photo by Jamie Cho for HarperCollins/Provided to China Daily]

Indeed, few would not stare in amazement watching the 33-year-old young lady elegantly throws a few ingredients into a pan and two minutes later produce a mouth-watering culinary treat.

On stage she is all sunshine and smiles, but examining her hands up close one cannot help discovering faded signs of oil splatters, burnt marks and thin cuts the labour of cooking have left behind.

"I am a good healer actually," she explained, recounting how she once cut her finger while making char siu pork on The Good Food Channel's "Market Kitchen". Luckily the programme was not live, so the team corrected the "mistake" and the audience laughed it off.

"I was chopping really quickly, they were asking me questions. Cooking on its own is hard enough but on TV you're doing a hundred million things at one time, the knife was so sharp I didn't even feel it."

Just like her cooking, Ching's life journey did not run smooth.

Born in Taiwan, Ching moved with her family to London at the age of 11. Her father bought handbags, clothing, and jewelry to sell in London, but Britain's recessions in the 90s hit his business hard. To make the ends meet, Ching worked part-time through secondary school, a time which she characterised as "living on the breadline".

In 1999, Ching was finishing her last year of Economies degree at Queen Mary, University of London. While her classmates had the luxury to explore different careers, Ching's family was in dire need of money and the responsibility weighed heavy on her.

"I could have gone into the banking industry, but because my family was so desperate, I actually needed more money than the starting salary at banks," she said, recounting her "sad story" in the office of her book agent Toby Eady Associates in Notting Hill.

Dejected and discouraged, Ching walked passed a sandwich shop not far from Notting Hill and spotted a sandwich shop selling beautifully packaged cold noodles at the price of £3.50. "It cost a fortune, but didn't taste very nice, and I was very disappointed."

The poorly cooked noodles sparked an idea. "I thought, well, I could do better than that. So if I could supply 20 boxes a day, times three pound fifty, times a hundred stores in London, that's quite a lot," she started doing the maths.

Ching called the head office of Europa Food, a retailer that then had 80 stores in London, and made an appointment to see a buyer.

On the day, she packed her cold noodles with sliced cucumber, carrots, chicken, soy source, chopped garlic, sesame oil and sugar into a lunchbox. "I said to him you have to have this in your store."

The buyer looked at Ching with her lunchbox and asked if she has a factory, a kitchen, a license to produce food, how many people she employs and what was the turnover.

"I was overwhelmed. I haven't even finished my last year of university." But between April and July 1999 Ching completed the list with the last £500 she could spare.

Through a friend of a friend, she found a kitchen in North London that was occasionally hired out as a banquet hall, and she bargained hard for the landlady to let her use it for free.

"I said to her if I'm successful in my business I can hire it every day. In the end we agreed on three months, because I thought if this all work, then it will only take three months, and if it doesn't then we'll find out."

She contacted the local health and hygiene inspector, hired two part time staff and a kitchen manager, bought a fax machine to receive orders, registered the company Fuge Ltd, printed quick labels for the food, sourced packaging and ingredients, and to her luck there was a delivery company five minutes away that completed the "last part of the missing puzzle".

"It was a steep learning curve," Ching said. She still vividly remembers meeting the distribution company's Managing Director.

"He asked me what is my percentage margin on return, but I didn't know what percentage margin on return means and was too embarrassed to admit it".

So she held out the calculator and asked the Managing Director how would he calculate his. "And that's how I learnt," she said.

With about 500 units of noodle orders from Europa each day, Ching's team worked tirelessly for 12 hours a day, six days a week, but a month after her business started the buyer from Europa asked her to go and see him.

"'It's not selling' he said, and I couldn't understand why."

For a whole day Ching stood outside a Europa shop in Notting Hill, looking at people picking up her noodles, looking at them, before putting them down. That's when she realized dividing noodles, vegetables and sources into compartment made people assume they have to stir fry it at home.

"And I thought, ah, Westerners are so lazy". The epiphany made Ching change her packaging to a round bowl with everything mixed together, and even laying a pair of chopsticks on top to give the ready-to-eat signal.

Soon her product range expanded to more than 40 items including salad, dumplings and chicken stick. In 2004 Ching bought a new kitchen of about 7,200 square metres in West London, and hired about 25 people. Orders grew to thousands of units a day, and Fuge's turnover increased to £1 million. One by one, London's upscale supermarkets and department stores like Harrods, Selfridges, Waitrose and Harrods all started ordering her products.

Ching's business expanded fast, but years of repetitive work counting the penny drained her mentally. "I thought I don't want to own a big factory somewhere just to churn out products like this."

So when a friend introduced her to meet a contact at Good Food Channel, she made the most of it. "After my career in terms of factory, the creativity, the thirst, the hunger to try different things really came."

Her shows won great acclaim. According to statistics from Broadcasters' Audience Research Board, each of the 13 episodes of "Ching's Chinese Food in Minutes" shown on Channel Five in 2010 was watched by around one million people.

Ching is currently taking her techniques to San Francisco with her latest series "Easy Chinese: San Francisco", and will be filming a cooking tour in China for the BBC later this year.

Her recipes are documented in several cookbooks, of which Chinese Food in Minutes was ranked an Amazon bestseller.

For Ching, cooking is a passion, a joy and a part of life, but she admits as a teenage girl she once considered it a chore, when she frequently had to cook for her father in her mother's absence. Ching's mother taught her the basics, and she was left to improvise by herself from bamboo-leaf parcels of glutinous rice to noodle soups.

"I hated it back then, but I think everything in life happens for a reason, and without the experience I can never be who I am now," she said. The wheel has come full circle.