A taste of the West with a side order of charm

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 February, 2012, 12:00am


Chef Jamie Bilbow may be starting small - with a lunch cart in Beijing - but he has grand ambitions.

Bilbow, who was raised in Hong Kong but speaks Putonghua, certainly does not lack the confidence and charisma that are so necessary to make an impact on television. He has already been featured on local television and has been selected for a national programme that focuses on Westerners involved in unusual ventures in China.

Not a bad start for a 23-year-old who is fresh out of university, a recent Chinese-language graduate of the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Part of the course involved studying in Beijing, allowing Bilbow to soak up the capital's food and culture. After finishing his degree, the former Sha Tin College student hot-footed it back, with the aim of establishing a food-related business.

The Briton's first venture is a lunch cart plastered with his personal logo, which translates as Big Rice's Kitchen, selling home-made hummus wrapped in pita bread. A favourite spot to set up is by the Drum and Bell Tower, deep in the old hutongs (alleyways), where his 1.9-metre frame, distinctive garb of army greatcoat and red trousers, and voluble patter always attracts a large crowd.

Bilbow, who is not short of a word or two in either English or Chinese, also sings the odd song to keep the crowd's attention and prepares the modest dishes with the natural flair of a showman. The spiel puts great emphasis on how special the hummus is - prepared personally, using best quality chickpeas, olive oil and lemon juice.

'I came to China to create a career as celebrity chef, and I thought the best way to have an impact is to get people interested,' he says. 'It's about the long-term aim of getting enough followers interested in the brand. I always wanted to have my own cooking show. I have started filming myself cooking and speaking in Chinese. I want to have a show that teaches young Chinese about Western food, substituting local ingredients for hard-to-find Western ones.

'The timing has to be right, and you have to be natural. And to do that in another language is difficult. In China the custom is to have a presenter and a chef, and the chef keeps quiet. I went on a local show where I biked on stage on my three-wheeler and learned a dish from the chef, and then I taught him how to make a meat wrap.'

The chef - whose father, Professor Grahame Bilbow, was head of the English department at Polytechnic University before retirement - also teaches English, and that income is earmarked for opening a restaurant in March.

'My idea is to take Chinese traditional elements of cooking and give them a Western twist, a fun angle,' he says. 'If you can get Chinese to love what you're selling, you have a business. It's not about the Westerners.'