From fashion to food

A former agent to models, Jonathan Phang talks about his foray into the culinary world

British TV personality Jonathan Phang was in Singapore recently to promote Gourmet Trains.
British TV personality Jonathan Phang was in Singapore recently to promote Gourmet Trains.PHOTO BY MATTHIAS HO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

British TV personality Jonathan Phang has had an unpredictable career on the small screen: He went from being a judge on the first three cycles of Britain's Next Top Model from 2005 to 2007, to hosting Naked, a reality show featuring professionals getting nude to boost their self-esteem, before finally doing food shows, such as the currently airing Gourmet Trains.

The former fashion industry agent who has since dedicated himself to a career in food says: "Gourmet Trains was pitched to me by the travel channel, as they felt I was the appropriate presenter from their stable of talent to do it. I'm very glad that they did, because I never thought I'd travel on trains like the Orient Express for a living."

The show, which is in its second season, features Phang, 49, riding various famous trains across the world, trying the food onboard before exploring destinations along the route and the food each place has to offer. He was in town recently to promote the show.

"In a way it works on three levels for a broader audience - it appeals to people who like trains, but don't get a chance to travel on them, to people who like to travel to exotic locations, and of course, for people who like food," he says, explaining how his food show would stand out from the many others on TV now.

Singapore, he says, "is a great city to eat in - you get all these different nationalities of food and essentially eat yourself around the world".

"It's also safe to eat everything, as compared to some other countries' street food with questionable hygiene standards," he adds.

"In particular, I love prata bombs. It's so bad for my waistline, but I like how it's so light and crispy and with that condensed milk. It's just fabulous."

This is not his first time in Singapore. On Season 1 of Gourmet Trains, he came to Singapore to try the chilli crab at Newton Food Centre.

Born in London to a Guyanese mother and Chinese father, Phang recalls how food has always been a part of his life while growing up in West London in the 1970s.

He says: "My family was very lucky. Most English people ate really badly, having a sort of set meal every day of the week. When my family wasn't having dim sum on a Sunday, my father would insist that we have a traditional Sunday roast, and for later on, Caribbean food. I had a very good exposure to different cuisines when I was younger."

Yet he started working in another industry altogether different from food - as an assistant to a make-up artist when he was 16, eventually moving up the ranks and becoming an agent to top talents in the fashion industry, from photographers to big-name models such as Jerry Hall, Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks.

While he was involved with Britain's Next Top Model, though, he felt he was not being "100 per cent authentic about the industry".

"It was a reality show, and not really about the ins and outs of the industry. Moving from fashion to food was much better for me," he says.

"With food I feel I can be more honest. and I'm more comfortable with it. But don't get me wrong, Top Model was a lot of fun to work on too."

One of his most memorable TV stints was as mentor to the contestants on Britain's Missing Top Model, a spin-off of Britain's Next Top Model, that featured disabled women who aspired to be models.

"It was about so much more than your typical reality show, challenging perceptions of beauty and disability in a way that I had never confronted," he says.

"Being involved in fashion meant that I was in an aesthetic bubble looking at really beautiful people, so my perception of what is the norm was probably a little bit unrealistic. I loved every second of it, everyone was very excited to be doing something so different, and not quite knowing what to expect."

Phang first made the move from fashion to food when he took part in a cooking competition years ago on British TV show The People's Cookbook, where he entered one of his mother's recipes and won.

He was then asked to appear on British cookery show Market Kitchen, thus getting his break in food-themed shows.

While he is not sure if Gourmet Trains will see a third season, he says: "There're some iconic trains we haven't been on yet, like the Blue Train in South Africa and the Trans-Siberian Express in Russia, so we still have plenty of material for a third season.

"If we don't do Season 3, I'll be writing another book. I'm collecting a lot of recipes on my travels and trying them out when I get home. I've definitely got a good international perspective of my travels so far, enough to write a book."

Not that he sees himself as an expert on food.

Striking a note of humility, he says: "I'm neither a celebrity or a chef, but I am a passionate good cook. I just love to work and it's all I want out of it.

"The whole celebrity thing isn't for everyone. If there isn't a Season 3, I might just go back to being a modelling agent and be away from television for a while.

"In any case, one day you should try my char siew, it's very good," he says, before following with his signature hearty guffaw.

  • Jonathan Phang's Gourmet Trains Season 2 airs every Sunday, 3pm and 10pm on the Asian Food Channel (StarHub TV Channel 435).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2015, with the headline 'From fashion to food'. Print Edition | Subscribe