Working in the fashion and beauty industries for more than two decades, Jonathan Phang has been the man behind the success of some of the top models from London to Miami and New York. Now he hosts his own cooking programmes on the Travel Channel - his latest undertaking being Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Train. Debashine Thangevelo enjoyed a delightful chat with him aboard the Rovos Rail luxury train...
JONATHAN Phang has spent the mainstay of his career surrounded by leggy models and catwalks. His expertise also saw him signed up as a judge on several UK modelling reality shows.
Now the owner of his own beauty agency, he is back on the small screen – this time as a chef.
While Phang doesn’t claim to be a chef or have any Michelin stars to his name, his affable personality, self-deprecating humour, love of food and ability to adapt to any environment have cemented his popularity on the small screen.
His Graham Norton-like irrever- ence also works in his favour.
He was in South Africa to promote Jonathan Phang’s Gourmet Trains on Travel Channel.
For the series, he travelled to some of the most exotic locations: Venice, Bucharest, Istanbul, Singapore, Penang, Bangkok, Budapest, Vienna and, of course, London. And he did so aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the British Pullman and Northern Belle and the Eastern and Oriental Express.
After exchanging our worse jetlag stories – agreeing that the LA leg is the most horrendous – Phang joked: “You know, I think I need Air Force One to be comfortable. I do. Next stop, luxury planes.” (laughs)
He first spoke about how he bagged Johanthan Phang’s Caribbean Cookbook on the Food Network, which was the catalyst to him getting this show.
“Because my parents were from the Caribbean, it was very personal to me. And Nick Thorogood (the senior vice-president of Content and Marketing), has been a good friend of mine for a very long time. And he always said to me: ‘If you ever have an idea which you think is applicable to you, then we can talk about it’. And when my book, The Pepperpot Club, came out it kind of tied in nicely. And it was something they hadn’t done because Caribbean food is exploited inter- nationally. Funny part is, it doesn’t particularly look good, but it tastes great. It always looks like a bit of a stew and therefore channels don’t like to make shows like that.
“For that show, it was about authenticity, caring about what you cook and having a story attached to it. Because that is very much the kind of cook I am – I am not a chef. And every recipe we cooked on that show had a connection to my friends or family, so it was about sharing myself, I suppose.”
He also recorded a Christmas show, but doesn’t seem entirely happy with it.
Phang explained: “One is always self-critical. It is a hard thing trying eight recipes in a day. Plus, I was also filming the Gourmet Trains series the night before until 11pm and was knackered. Every time I do some-thing I care about, I never have a good night’s sleep. There’s always something I focus on, like I hated the trousers or shirt I wore. But I thought the (Christmas) show was fine, the recipes were good. But I don’t know if I injected myself in it the way I wanted to.
“You don’t have very many opportunities in life and you have to try and make the best of them. Sometimes you fail and sometimes you work.”
Though no stranger to the camera – after all, he has spent a career surrounded by them – the shift to TV chef hasn’t really sunk in.
He revealed: “I actually do it because it is so different to my day job. And I only really get a chance to do TV shows in my holiday time. So I haven’t really taken it seriously as a career option – let’s put it that way. It is sort of like a lucky hobby.”
As for being the host of Gourmet Trains, he shared: “Well, that had nothing at all to do with me. The executive producer of the show, a guy called Richard, whom I’d worked with once, but we knew each other sort of socially – went to the channel with the idea. And I think they were trying to find a fit for me.
“It is that sort of rock in a hard place because I am not a chef, but they liked me. So they said, out of their talent pool, they felt I would be the right fit. And they were right. They felt I could be socially adept enough.
“The first episode was easy. You can’t help but be excited in a place like Venice. Chefs can be so single-minded, they sometimes stifle themselves with the way people behave. I try to meet everybody and find the best in them on all levels. That’s why I think they were right in choosing me; not that I had any aspirations to go on a train at all. I never, ever thought I would go on the Orient Express. It was not something I aspired to.
“That wasn’t the point, though, it was getting into the swing of it.”
Overall, he had some truly remarkable experiences.
“I loved the food market in Thailand, it was the sort of food I grew up with. Bucharest was the place that stood out for me. We cooked with an amazing chef (who was imprisoned during the Communist era) – and he was really creative. He would cook without having the resources we all take for granted. It was really quite poignant when he said: ‘I haven’t seen a lemon for 30 years.’”
Although he found the cuisine in Budapest unpalatably fatty, he was impressed in Istanbul.
“That was a total standout,” he pointed out. “I thought it was going to be far more restrained, in that Muslim way. But it was very progressive and the food was terrific and exiting.”
Along the way, Phang also learnt how to make one of his favourite dishes – a proper Thai green curry.
We could have spent the entire train ride chatting about the wonderful characters he met on his travels, but it would ruin the surprise for viewers.
Ultimately, Jonathan Phang’s Gourmet Trains is a vibrant, funny, entertaining and mesmerising journey, where the flavourful fine cuisine on offer is peppered with historical anecdotes.
• Jonathan Phang’s Gourmet Trains airs on Travel Channel (DStv channel 179) on Tuesdays at 9pm.