Martin Yan has been on TV, he says, “longer than anyone.” He’s not entirely right, but when he says it, it feels right, if that makes any sense. When Yan began his career as an on-air chef personality, broadcasting through a local Calgary TV station in 1978, there were few chefs in the cooking-show arena. Compared to the present day’s food-show overload (Man vs. Child: Chef Showdown, anyone?), the number of people with successful TV food careers when Yan began could be counted on one hand: the two most prominent were the legendary Julia Child and Graham Kerr, better known as the Galloping Gourmet.
That makes the success of Yan Can Cook, which has shot more than 1,500 episodes, that much more impressive. That the ostentatious, perma-smiled, thickly accented Guangzhou, China, native was able to capture the attention and imagination of a national audience speaks to his abilities both as a chef and an entertainer.
And Yan is certainly a showman. His shows are an onomatopoetic symphony of “Bam!”s, “Oh!”s, and “Chopchopchop!”s, combined with an incessant din of cleaver hitting cutting board. In a popular YouTube video of Yan giving a demonstration to students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he proclaims, “The restaurant is a stage. And you are the actor. You have to entertain your customer.” He proceeds to dissect an entire chicken carcass in approximately 16 seconds, narrating the entire action sequence with a mix of shouted verbs (“Cut!”) and unintelligible sound effects (“Bshbshbsh!”) to raucous applause from the CIA students.
Food Republic caught up with Yan, who has been filming a new television series, Martin Yan: Taste of Asia, for PBS.
How are you, chef?
I just returned from Malaysia, filming for over a month. I basically travel all over the country and explore the landscape, the history, the food, the culture and the arts and crafts. We film a total of about 65 days. And we’ve finished 50 days, so there are about 15 days to go. We go to remote areas, to the jungle. We get insect bites. We bump into wild boars, monkeys. We were setting up something and a herd of monkeys, about six or seven of them, came and destroyed all the things we put together, because they’re so fast. We turned around and the monkeys just jumped over and grabbed everything. So we had to redo everything. It was amazing.
That sounds like fun.
Well, when you love what you do, everything you do is fun.
Are there a lot of ethnic Chinese people in Malaysia?
About 25 to 28 percent. There a lot of Chinese immigrants from China, but they are not all from the same province. Some are from Hakka, some from Suzhou, Fujian, Hainan island. Each of these groups brings a distinctive cuisine and culture and heritage. If you live in Los Angeles, you’re most likely exposed to Cantonese cuisine. Maybe a little Sichuan, Shanghai, but you’ll hardly see Suzhou, Hakka, or Fujian cuisine. There’s not enough people who migrated to the U.S. from that part of the country.
What is the best form of Chinese cuisine that Americans don’t know about?
There are a lot of things that Americans aren’t familiar with. I told you about Fujian cuisine; it’s very popular in Southeast Asia. Of course, in America, most people are familiar with Cantonese cuisines. Now more Sichuan, more Hunanese, Shanghainese, Beijing restaurants are opening up. But still, you go deep into the Midwest and people are still probably not exposed to a lot of these cuisines.
So, what is typical Fujian or Suzhou cuisine?
Suzhou cuisine is famous for a lot of pickles. They’re famous for fish that are braised and pan fried. They use Chinese olives. Fujian are famous for “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall.” This particular casserole is so delicious that the Buddhist monks cannot help themselves — they jump over the wall to try to taste it.
What is it?
It’s actually a casserole with all kind of abalone and chicken and pork, all kinds of good, rich stuff. And it’s cooked for 36 hours and steamed for hours and hours … so the essence of it all just melts together. It’s very rich. There’s nothing like it in Western cuisine.
How long have you been on TV now?
I’ve been on TV longer than anyone else. I’ve been on TV since 1978 — 36 years.
Do you still like it?
I love it. You remember: Julia [Child] never quit, never retired. My good friend Jacques Pépin never retired. The Frugal Gourmet never retired, until he passed away. Justin Wilson. None of us ever retire because we love what we do. Why should we quit?
Why do you think you’ve been able to stay on for so long? What is it about your show that’s so enduring?
I’m no different that any other television host; I’m just passionate about what I do. I continue to enjoy what I do, and I don’t just do it in the U.S. I do shows in Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. And I don’t just do shows in English; I do them in Mandarin and Cantonese, so I reach a lot of people. I love to share; I love to teach. Just yesterday I did a show as a guest chef, and the contestants said, “When I was a little kid, I watched your show.” I’ve been doing the same thing for many, many years. It has to do with whether you’re passionate about what you do. When you’re passionate, you don’t have to work a day in your life. I’m not working; I’m having fun.
What is the most gratifying thing about doing your show?
I like all aspects of what I do. If I want to be a good teacher and a good host, if I don’t travel, you don’t have a sense of reality. So you have to travel. I meet a lot of interesting people: home cooks, elderly people, master chefs, experts. People cooking the same dish for three generations of the family and they love it. They continue to do it and pass it from one generation to another. In the U.S., there’s nothing like it. It’s very rare to see people take over their parents’ or grandparents’ thing and do one dish. And it happens a lot in Asia; they cook just one dish, sell one thing and pass it for three generations.
Is there such a thing as a celebrity chef in Asia? Or is that primarily a U.S. thing?
Well, I think celebrity chefs started more in the U.S. and England first. In my case, when I travel, I meet a lot of chefs, and they’re very courteous, very polite, very friendly and share with me all of the very best. And when I travel, I bump into a lot of young chefs that say, “Chef Yan, I got into this business because I watched you when I was young.” It has nothing to do with fame and fortune. The sense of satisfaction and accomplishments has to do with whatever you do. You make an impact on somebody’s life.
What do you think about the state of Chinese and Asian cooking in the U.S. today?
It’s changed a lot, for the better. When I first came here, there were six or seven thousand Chinese restaurants. Very few Thai or Vietnamese restaurants or sushi bars. Now you can go to Vietnamese restaurants, Cambodian restaurants, Indian restaurants and there are 53,000 Chinese restaurants — more than all the fast-food chains combined.
So it’s really exploded?
Yes. And Asian cuisine, particularly Chinese cuisine, has become mainstream. If you ask anybody, you’d be amazed to hear that some people have never tasted Chinese. I guarantee you, everyone in the U.S. has tasted Chinese food, in some way or another. If you go to the Jewish community, they love Chinese food. If you ask them, if they don’t have a Chinese restaurant, there’s going to be a problem.
Do you like to go to Jewish delis?
I love delis. I just went to a local deli in my office complex. As a cooking personality, you have to be adventurous. I can’t just keep eating Chinese food and Asian food. I have to keep eating new things.
Would you change anything about your career if you could?
No. People always say, “I’m going to change my career; I’m going to retire or slow down.” When you love what you do, when you’re not working, why should you change? Just like Frank Sinatra or Jack Nicklaus. They play golf not because they want to make more money. They love the people, they love the audience, they love the game, right?
So you love the audience?
I love to teach, I love to share, I love to eat, I love food.
But even you get angry or frustrated sometimes?
I don’t have time to get angry. Sometimes I get frustrated, but I don’t get angry. Sometimes I go to a place and everything is there and we’re ready to go. Then suddenly something happens. If it’s pouring rain, or someone can’t make it, or someone changes their mind. There’s nothing you can do. This is reality of life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.