"Yan Can Cook, So Can You!"
Considered to be a pioneer of Chinese cuisine in America, Chef Martin Yan has delved into almost every aspect of the culinary world: chef, food consultant, cooking instructor, TV host, and author. Born in southern China, Chef Yan was inspired to cook by his mother, who worked the tiny kitchen of their family restaurant. From his world-renowned daily TV cooking show "Yan Can Cook" to his thirty cookbooks, Chef Martin has made it his life-long mission to share his passion for Chinese cooking and promote Chinese cuisine by making it easy for home cooks and delicious for his restaurant guests. In this episode of LUCKYINSIDER, we sit down with this international food ambassador:
LUCKYRICE: You've been in the culinary world for over three decades promoting and educating people on traditional Chinese cuisine and your efforts have greatly contributed to our understanding of Chinese food. What do you think are the biggest "attitude" changes?
Martin Yan: Back when I was first breaking into television, Chinese food was considered exotic. For the average American family, Chinese food meant going to the neighborhood Chinese restaurant once a week or twice a month. For single people, it was ordering Chinese take out on Friday night. In either case, the cooking was left to the ‘professionals’. Today, Chinese food and Chinese cooking are completely ‘mainstream’. Middle America is not hesitant to try out a healthy stir-fry or steaming vegetables in their own kitchens. When I was in college, bean sprouts were considered an exotic ingredient. Today, you can find it in the produce section of most major supermarkets. This is progress!
LUCKYRICE: Many Chinese dishes often considered “traditional" are actually dishes created for Western palates. Do you consider popular menu items like Egg Foo Young “traditional" Chinese food?
Martin: The debate between ‘traditional’ and ‘adopted’ Chinese food is as old as my chopping block! What is and what isn’t traditional? And are traditional dishes the only ones worth praising? In order for a cuisine to stand the test of time, it must evolve. Tastes, technology, geography and economics are constantly changing so it’s unrealistic to expect any one cuisine to remain unchanged. I think a fairer way of looking at this is to distinguish classical Chinese dishes from Chinese-American dishes. Egg Foo Young is more popular in Chinese-American restaurants and has been for many, many decades. In that sense, it is as traditional as American styled pizzas.
LUCKYRICE: It's about time that Chinese fine dining has become big time in the States. Particularly in SF, restaurants like Hakkasan, Crystal Jade, and of course, M.Y. China are changing the misconception that Chinese food is "cheap and cheerful". What do you want guests to take away from their dining experience at M.Y. China?
Martin: Food is a multi-dimensional experience. It engages us in multiple ways: by sight, sound and taste. It can also entertain and educate us. As a television host, I try to engage all these aspects of cooking in shaping my shows. I try to do the same at M.Y. China. I want my guests to enjoy an all-encompassing dining experience. They should enjoy the food of course, but also share in the experience of how the food goes from the kitchen to their tables. If they leave with an appreciation of how their dinners were created, they will return.
LUCKYRICE: We love the theatricality of M.Y. China, the open air kitchens with hand-pulled noodle stations and more. Can you talk about the inspiration behind that?
Martin: I have long admired the open air kitchen concept in many Western restaurants, and I have wanted to adapt that in an Asian (not just Chinese) format. I have come across samples of that in my travels throughout China and Asia so I brought it back to M.Y. China, San Francisco. This is by far the most cutting edge city when it comes to culinary practices.
LUCKYRICE: You've had a long-standing PBS show that has taught us all so much about Chinese food and fans who have followed you for generations. What's your secret recipe to longevity? And keeping the series "fresh"?
Martin: I have no secret recipe to longevity. Enjoying what I do probably has something to do with it, and keeping busy. I am busier now than when I was 20 - a lot busier. People often ask me when will I retire. I usually tell them that my schedule is too full for the next several years. Keeping my show fresh is actually the easy part. The culinary landscape is changing so rapidly that every year there are new topics, new locations, and new dishes to introduce.
LUCKYRICE: Each region of China has its own distinct cuisine and you have a mix of dishes on your menu – what regional cuisine is your personal favorite?
Martin: I should be diplomatic and say that I love them all. I do, but of course we all have our favorites. Mine would be the southern Chinese, or what used to be called Cantonese cuisine. It’s the region where I was born and grew up and where I have the fondest food memories - so it is personal.
LUCKYRICE: Tell us more about your culinary tours to China. What regions of China are the most exciting today in terms of its culinary scene?
Martin: Cooking is very much like any other creative professional discipline. You need talent, and you need resources to develop these talents. Large metropolitan areas in China are magnets these days, attracting not only Chinese cooking talents but international ones as well. Travel to Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and you will see tremendous competition in the food business - a great deal of innovation and also failure. In many ways, the west is following China in this.
LUCKYRICE: You have had such a long, successful career - what's been the highlight and what's next?
Martin: The highlight of my career has always been the times when I had the good fortune to meet industry icons such as Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. They inspired me, challenged me, and reaffirmed my career choice. As to what’s next, I am finishing a new 26-part series featuring the best foods of Malaysia. I’ve been working on this for the past two years. Everybody says that I should take a break, but there's still too many exciting adventures. I can always sleep on the plane.