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Chef Martin Yan: Bringing the Joy of Chinese Cooking to the World

May 24, 2018
Chef Martin Yan
Chef Martin Yan

The renowned celebrity chef and TV show host talks about how he became an international food ambassador.

Chef Martin Yan can be called many things: the original celebrity chef, a longtime TV show host, certified Master Chef, highly respected food consultant, professional instructor, star of 3,000 cooking shows, author of 30 cookbooks, international food ambassador, chef extraordinaire, restaurateur and promoter of Chinese cuisine, among others—and rightfully so.

Inspired by his mother, Chef Yan began his cooking career at an early age as an apprentice in a Hong Kong restaurant. Later moved overseas, where he began teaching Chinese cooking classes, and, in 1978, he pioneered his own Chinese cooking TV show, “Yan Can Cook,” one of the longest-running and most popular cooking shows on public television. Chef Yan has won a number of awards, including a Daytime Emmy Award in 1998 for Best Cooking Show, and two James Beard Awards—one for Best TV Food Journalism in 1996 and another for Best TV Cooking Show in 1994. He sat down with us to talk about his humble beginnings, his passion for promoting Chinese cuisine, and how pure luck and chance landed him a four-decade and counting TV career.

You started off as an apprentice in a Hong Kong restaurant at the age of 13. Is that when you knew you wanted to be a chef?

I was born in Guangzhou, China and at the age of 13, after my father passed away, I moved to Hong Kong. One of our family friends had a restaurant there, and that’s where I initially got started. Life as an apprentice in a Hong Kong restaurant, especially back in those days, was not exactly what one might call glamorous. At that age, I was grateful just to have two meals and a place to sleep. Those were long days. During the day, I would attend high school and after school, I would help out at the restaurant—and my job description included sweeping and mopping up the dining room, stacking up chairs and making my bed in the middle of it. So, if anyone asked me back then if I wanted to do that for the rest of my life, the answer of course would be “no!” It took many years and many places for me to learn what a rewarding career the culinary world could offer. I can only say that I am glad that I have stuck it out during my days as an apprentice.

Having been on TV for 40 years, what was it like to be a pioneer of the first Chinese cooking TV show, "Yan Can Cook"? Did you ever expect that the show would become such a hit?

I am a chef by trade and a TV chef by accident. I started teaching Chinese cooking classes at UC Davis back when I was pursuing my degree, because I needed the money. After graduating from college, I ended up helping a friend of mine from high school with his new restaurant that he opened in Calgary, Alberta, which, coincidentally, was located close to a local TV station. People from that station used to come to the restaurant all the time, and we would cook for them. One day, one of their chefs got sick, and they asked me if I would be interested to be on the show instead of him. After that time, they would ask me to come back again and again. Before I knew it, I was on a television show, and the rest, as they say, was history. After that show ended, they offered me to do 130 episodes. In the old days—even today—the networks don’t offer you to do more than 8 or 10 episodes. I did 130 episodes in 25 days. That’s how, very accidentally, I got on TV. You could say that I was at the right place at the right time. I never expected to be on TV, I never cared to be on TV, and I didn’t know what the impact of TV would be. After almost 40 years, I still have the cooking TV show that’s most likely the longest-running cooking and travel show in the U.S. and probably in the world.

"I am a firm believer that something good is even better when it is shared with others. I love Asian cooking, and I love it even more when I can share it with the world."

- Martin Yan

Chef Martin Yan on the set of Yan Can Cook show

Four decades in the TV business have taught me many things, and the most important one is that you don't make a hit show—your audience does. TV is the perfect example of democracy, where the audience votes with their remotes. If you don't offer what they want, they switch the channel. It didn't matter if my show was the first, second, or the last Chinese cooking show—if it didn't have the content and style that the audience wanted, it would have been cancelled before I finished saying "Yan Can Cook." Expectation is a dangerous game to play. I much prefer to spend my energy on making the “Yan Can Cook” show the best show there is, and let the audience be the ultimate judge.

You’ve done a great job dispelling the mysteries of Asian cooking and educating people about local Chinese food and customs. How do you continue to be an ambassador between the East and West in this age of celebrity chefs?

If you spend more time worrying about being a celebrity than being a chef, you are losing sight of the real reason why you do what you do. It sounds nice to be called an “Ambassador of Asian and Chinese cuisine,” [but] it's just a label that others have bestowed upon me. Underneath that label is my lifelong commitment to bringing the joy of Chinese cooking to as many people as I can. I am a firm believer that something good is even better when it is shared with others. I love Asian cooking, and I love it even more when I can share it with the world. I would be doing the exact same thing with or without the title.

If you watch Food Network, you will notice that the majority of cooking shows have plenty of drama and entertainment, and not a lot of them are doing our format. What I am doing with “Yan Can Cook” is introducing the food, the heritage, the culture, the history and the country in general—and it’s not done in the studio. That’s what sets me apart. People love to travel and to see what’s happening, and our show provides that—a cultural and culinary insight into the country. Plus, I speak Cantonese and Mandarin, and that gives me a little edge because I can travel all over Asia and can work in both continents.

You recently did the Taste of Malaysia series. Is there a highlight from the trip/series that you can share with us? Where is “Yan Can Cook” venturing out to next?

Over the years, “Yan Can Cook” has produced series all across Asia. From Korea to Singapore, to Vietnam and Malaysia, and of course we just finished the series in Chengdu, China, where we explored how the food and spices have shaped the history and culture of that region. Simply put, we go where there is good food and good people, which pretty much means everywhere in Asia these days. The next project is going to be Cambodia. I want to visit the homes of people, cook with the locals and talk to them about their heritage, the history, and the struggle that Cambodians have endured in the last 40 years, and how they survived and prospered.

The Malaysia series will be aired soon. I had the special honor to visit and actually cook with Her Majesty, the Queen of Malaysia—the first for a foreign chef. Now that is truly a career highlight for any chef.

Is there an Asian food trend that you are seeing that you are excited about?

This may sound biased, but I truly believe that we are living in the golden age of Asian cooking. A lot of it is related to the booming economies in Asia. As income levels rise, the market for good food becomes more and more competitive. Asian cuisines are well accepted simply because they are based on fresh and healthy ingredients, have a range of flavors, and there is something for everybody—be it ramen, sushi, or beef noodle soup. Most of the last century was dominated by European cuisines, but I am convinced that in this century, Asian cuisine is stepping up, and it will take its rightful place under the international spotlight.

As for particular Asian food trends, many people don’t realize that in Asia—Korea, India, and China—vegetarian-based diets are very common, and there are a lot of vegetarian restaurants all over. As people become more health-conscious on both sides of the Pacific, I think that vegetarian and Asian fusion restaurants will be popping up more, particularly in big cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, New York and San Francisco. Also, we will continue seeing more and more noodle shops and restaurants. Noodles are comforting, fast and nutritious, and people are really digging the flavor. Just look at how ramen restaurants became popular in just a matter of years.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I go by that old saying: Love what you do, and you will never have to work a day in your life. I might not have known what I wanted to do as a 13-year-old apprentice, but now I can tell you with all my heart that I cannot think of doing anything else in life. The funny thing about love—it’s not always love at first sight. Some love, especially the kind that lasts, will take a while, but once it's there, it stays with you forever. To every young chef out there, follow your passion, take chances, and you will discover that love soon.