Nancy Lam, the ninth of 10 children, came from modest beginnings in Singapore. Today she is a British TV personality with a restaurant run by her daughters and husband and an array of TV credits. She came to England in 1970 and did odd jobs, working as a cleaner and eventually studying nursing. But it was in 1984 when her passion and flair for cooking took her down a new career path. After a friend asked her to cater an event, she was inspired to set up a home catering business. By 1990 she had opened her restaurant Enak Enak in London, and in 1997 she began her frequent television appearances. In her spare time, Lam does charity work for Cancer Research UK and also has worked with Diabetes U.K. to help raise awareness of the disease in the United Kingdom.
Your TV success has been credited in part to your straightforward approach, your engaging personality and your way of “building a one-on-one relationship with the viewer.” What do you think is most important?
To be honest with yourself. Acting is fine, but giving is essential. Be honest. Just tell them the easiest and tastiest way to do the meal, use ingredients people can find locally, don’t be afraid to try new things. Sometimes old-fashioned techniques are cut in favor of the new. That’s fine, but the old way has to be there, too.
What do you enjoy the most about television?
The camera. I love it. I can laugh at it, tell my secrets to it, and the other side [the viewers] can get to me. We have a laugh. Cooking is fun. You’re over the stove watching things coming to a boil. It’s like making love with someone really delicious. You stand together, enjoy cutting vegetables together, have a glass of wine together, look at each other adoringly: Even if the prawns are overcooked, it doesn’t matter.
How do you balance television and restaurant?
I balance myself with my family’s support. My family and a handful of good friends support me without hesitation.
BIOGRAPHY Title: chef-owner, Enak Enak, London Birth date: February 20, 1948 Hometown: Kampong Bahru, Singapore Career highlights: opening Enak Enak restaurant; appearing on such TV shows as “Nancy Lam Stirs It Up,” “This Morning with Richard and Judy” and now “The New Paul O’Grady Show”; writing a cookbook; consulting on Mahiki, a trendy London lounge Website:
Title: chef-owner, Enak Enak, London
Birth date: February 20, 1948
Hometown: Kampong Bahru, Singapore
Career highlights: opening Enak Enak restaurant; appearing on such TV shows as “Nancy Lam Stirs It Up,” “This Morning with Richard and Judy” and now “The New Paul O’Grady Show”; writing a cookbook; consulting on Mahiki, a trendy London lounge
Your website describes the foods you use on TV as “very colorful, fresh and fun.” Are there particularly photogenic foods?
I like bright colors. When I cook, I cook for the viewer, to show them. There is a three-colors-only school of thought with cooking. That’s not me. I cook with my eyes and palate. When the viewers see the colors, they’re willing to try it and cook it. They tell me that when they watch, they want to eat. Color is also good for children: It makes them want to try. Your imagination has not even started to cook, and the color has struck your brain.
Who is your greatest professional inspiration?
Chef Marco Pierre White and [former television cook] Delia Smith. Marco because of how he started. We have the same background. I struggled with finances, as did he. He was very courageous. He’s a very ambitious man. He dared to aim big. He’s also very kind and a very good friend. It’s about inspiration.
And Delia because I find her cooking beautiful.
How is your work with your husband and two of your daughters?
My daughters Yanghtzee and YangMei seriously run the business. My husband does a lot, too. He’s the grill chef, and I call him ‘my all-arounder.’ Running a family business is challenging: We have crossed many bridges and have much love from friends, but we never trouble friends with money, only the bank.
You’re known for your character, heart and for speaking unscripted to your audiences.
I enjoy life. I laugh. As I laugh, I do things to make myself grow: cook, have parties, eat. I met my husband in 1974. We loved each other on the first day we met. He’s calm and doesn’t take chances. He thinks, “Just live today; don’t worry about tomorrow.” He’s very charming, a very good father and husband. When people ask me, ‘Which husband is this?’ I always say he’s my seventh husband. It’s a joke.
We have three girls, all lovely, for which I am so grateful. The restaurant is self-made with recipes from my grandmother, and so much love is given to the dishes.
But if someone is horrible, the dishes come out horribly. We call it, ‘The Spirit of the Wok.’ When the vegetables don’t respond, the chef might ask, ‘Is it someone horrible?’ And so often, it is. Otherwise, the dishes are lovely. I cook for everyone: locals, actors, ministers, writers. Even the Queen’s cousins come here. Today we have 50 seats, but before it was about 25 at seven tables. We brought up three children on the income from seven tables.
CHEF’S TIPS When cooking vegetables in a wok, don’t drown them in oil or overcook them. Vegetables and fruits can marry, with or without meat.
When cooking vegetables in a wok, don’t drown them in oil or overcook them.
Vegetables and fruits can marry, with or without meat.
What would you say to someone starting out today?
If you have enough money, the balls to take the challenges and an honest belief that you have a product to sell, go for it. It’s a hot industry.
You cook Chinese-Indonesian fusion. Is there a secret to continuously creating dishes that are easy and delicious?
Yes, the kitchen god. The secret has to come from your beautiful kitchen and your thoughts on food. Open your eyes and get inspiration.
What’s been your biggest surprise?
That, having started with so little, I have been given so much blessing. I’m rich in spirit. Nobody can take it from me.
What do you love most about this industry?
Meeting my competitors. I don’t know what they cook. They don’t know what I cook. Their kitchen is their oyster. My kitchen is mine. They can read your menu, but they can’t cook like you.