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Published:  23 July, 2008

Ken Hom, TV chef, author. Interview: Christian Davis

You've been telling the world how to cook Chinese food and now you're telling us what to drink with it. What's it all about? For 30 years I have had this idea: Why not make a decent wine for oriental cooking?' I did not grow up with wine, and Asians have different drinking patterns. They often have soup with a meal and the Chinese do not drink tea with their food.

So where does the wine come in? Patterns are changing and people are becoming more educated and are being exposed to wine. I am a wine lover and a red-wine drinker. Western people drink beer but I find it too gassy. It bloats you out and then you aren't hungry anymore. As for Cognac and whisky, they are strange beverages to have with a meal. Some Asians love wine, others think it is good for your sex life and good for your health, as with the French Paradox'. In Hong Kong you see refrigerators full of first growths.

So what sort of wines do you like? I like gutsy reds, from the Rhne and from Bandol in Provence, with lots of sunshine in the bottle. Intense wines. I love strong flavours like chilli and garlic and I think these wines match them well.

I expect that, being American and loving wine, you're into food and wine matching? I hate food and wine matching: it's intellectualising by the chattering classes. Wine should complement the food, not overwhelm it. We should enjoy it. In France wine is part of the table, not the centrepiece. Wine loosens the tongue and opens the world to conviviality.

You've gone for French rather than New World wine. Why? Asians tend to prefer French wines. New World wines can be too alcoholic and too overwhelming for our palates. I did talk to the likes of Bob Mondavi and Joseph Phelps 20 years ago but essentially the message was people drink beer in Chinese restaurants so we're not interested'. American winemakers did not use to care about the rest of the world but they are singing a different tune now.

Alsace wines are widely regarded as good for spicy food. Are you going to go there for any range extensions? I, and many of my Chinese and Thai friends, don't like Alsace wines. They are too flowery and fragrant - morning glory' gone amok. Someone once said I should have Beaujolais, but I don't like Beaujolais. You go to a Chinese restaurant here and you'll probably get Mateus Ros, Blue Nun and maybe some Alsace wines. In the early 1990s, I was asked to endorse Blue Nun but I said no because I don't like the wine and think it is a catastrophe with spices. The four wines - Chasan, Roussanne, Grenache and Mourvdre - are the foundation, but I am looking for a sparkling. I'm talking to Deutz - I love Deutz Champagne and light dessert wine.

At the launch you described the whites as fresh' and crisp', but Malcolm Gluck thought your Chasan was neither fresh nor crisp. Everyone has different palates. I like the Mourvdre while Eric Hosteins (of Louis Vialard) prefers the Grenache. I was looking for fresh, crisp flavours that go with the food. What goes into your mouth should be what you like and everyone has their own taste. In Britain there are a lot of fried and crispy oriental dishes with varying amounts of ginger and a lot of oil, whereas the original cuisine is more delicate, with steamed fish for example.

You worked in the family restaurant as a child, so wasn't it natural that you went into cooking? I worked in the restaurant when I was 11-years-old. I may have been cooking for 44 years but I did everything not to work in a restaurant. It is not a life for a sane person. I worked in a supermarket, was a messenger and then, like a lot of others, I went west' to study history of art at Berkeley. I was a desperately poor student and was asked to do an Italian cookery class - I had spent five months in Italy so I knew more than most Americans. Then I did a pasta course and at weekends I started to do Chinese cookery. Soon the classes were taking up all the time, so I gave up university.

You spend about three months of every year in London. Do you have a house here, and how do you divide your time? I stay at the Dorchester when I'm in London; they give me a very good rate. I spend about three months in France - Paris and the south-west - and the rest of the time in Thailand, where I have a house and I am studying Thai Buddhism and meditation. I love Thai food.