Leicester-born, half Chinese, half English food fanatic and entrepreneur Kwoklyn Wan speaks to Jessica Challoner-Sterland about his humble roots, inspiring career and a taste of what’s to come.
It’s incredibly refreshing to meet someone with such drive and passion for what they do in life. Within the first five minutes of meeting Kwoklyn Wan, I knew that his story was going to be an interesting one.
Food has always been at the centre of Kwoklyn’s world which began long before he was born. During the early 1960s his father’s side emigrated from Hong Kong to the East Midlands, where they eventually settled in Leicester. In 1962, Kwoklyn’s grandfather opened up The Hung Lau on Northampton Street, the city’s first Chinese restaurant. It was here that Kwoklyn’s father John Wan began his apprenticeship and after years of learning his trade, he too opened up a business in 1978. The Bamboo House was Leicester’s first Cantonese restaurant, and in 1984, The Panda followed. It was here that John and his wife Myra made a new home for themselves and their three children, as the premises were spacious enough to live above. As children, Kwoklyn and his older sister Oilen and younger brother Gok would help out in the family restaurant downstairs:
“Every weekend we were working. My brother was front of house, my sister was behind the bar and I was very much the KP washer-upper. But because of my position, I then learnt the kitchen, so that’s how I became this Chinese chef that I am now.”
Whilst finding his feet in the kitchen, Kwoklyn would brush-up on his culinary skills and create dishes for his family and friends to try. “I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t cook because that was the lifestyle, so I’ve always been able to cook.” After finishing school at the age of 16, he started full-time at The Panda. He shares that becoming a chef wasn’t a conscious career decision: “Even though my sister is older than me, I’m the eldest son, therefore, I think it was expected of me that I was going to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
During his twenties, Kwoklyn began branching away from the family business to discover his own path. After opening up a café in Leicester, a brief stint in Portsmouth working as a doorman, he eventually returned to his home city to fulfil his other passion, martial arts. Having been inspired by the films of Bruce Lee, his journey into martial arts began when he was just four-years-old. Since then, he has opened up his own Kung-Fu schools, founded the Martial Arts Festival UK, is recognised worldwide as a Jeet Kune Do instructor and in 2008, he was invited to teach and represent the Bruce Lee family in London.
Still very much present in the martial arts scene with the success of his school Urban Martial Arts, in recent years Kwoklyn has also been hard at work on the food scene: “We identified four different platforms where people could see what I was doing so one of them being writing. I was writing about food and posting it on my website and via social media and we were doing bits and bobs on the radio and for Leicester Mercury, but we noticed that face-to-face we were lacking slightly. So, we set-up the cookery school for people reading and listening to what I was doing, and they could actually come along and make some of the dishes under the supervision of myself.”
Now, his cookery school has evolved and rather than in-house cookery classes, he works with companies such as the NHS, Whitbread and Mon Amie to teach their clients and customers how to cook a variety of delicious East-Asian dishes.
Unlike the food served in his family restaurants that were more suited to the western taste, growing-up, Kwoklyn and his family would very often sit down to enjoy an authentic meal. He recalls pots of sumptuous vegetables, salt fish, salt chicken and not forgetting the steaming bowl of fluffy rice. It’s these dishes that are the epitome of tradition and home comforts which sparked the idea for his cookbook, Chinese Soul Food: A Journey Through Authentic Chinese Cuisine:
“For me, it was kind of like therapy, it was my way of reminiscing I guess of my entire childhood growing up. Chinese Soul Food was very much a personal journey for me, therefore, we looked at dishes that my dad would have been eating in the village and the dishes that he was able to bring over to England and cook for us as children.”
Hong Kong Street food is an area of East Asian cuisine that has not only inspired recipes for his website, YouTube channel and cookery classes but was the idea behind his restaurant, Wanton’s Bar which opened back in 2017. Situated on Fosse Road North in the former residence of his family’s restaurant, The Panda, the small food bar brings something a little different to the city:
“I’ve been quite lucky that I’ve been able to go back to Hong Kong on a regular basis. Whenever we go over there, we always eat in these tiny street cafes. I love the simplicity of going into a bar, sitting down with a bowl of noodles and a bottle of beer, and then off you go. You’re in and out within 10-15 minutes and it was something I noticed Leicester didn’t really have.”
Although the restaurant took off and was hugely popular with his customers, due to other projects, it was with a heavy heart that Kwoklyn made the decision to close Wanton’s Bar a few months ago, only to open occasionally for private functions. But there was one rather exciting opportunity Kwoklyn couldn’t turn down and its set for release this September: “I’ve been filming a documentary with the BBC and it’s about the food industry as it is now and the way things are changing. From the big chain restaurants to the independent bespoke restaurants, we’re discovering what makes a successful restaurant. It’s really exciting because it’s my first presenting role and it’s nice that it’s BBC1, so I’ve been really lucky.”
With lots of events coming up including a cooking demonstration at The Great British Food Festival in July, I couldn’t help asking what else is in store: “I’ve had some amazing meetings in London, I can’t say too much about it at the moment but if it happens, we’re talking global, so it’s pretty amazing really. I suppose we’re only just finding our feet, until this point we’ve been toddling and now we’ve turned it into a stride. There are lots of things happening.”
Kwoklyn’s incredible journey so far has proven that he’s ambitious, determined to succeed and certainly not afraid to take risks, and he does it all whilst juggling a family. Watch this space!