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Martin Yan (Yan Can Cook)

AsianConnections Interviews Martin Yan of TV's Yan Can Cook
Keeping It Simple

by Kris Man

The sun is beginning to set as I arrived at Chef Martin Yan's Bay Area office. Before I even get out of my car, I notice that his marketing/communications director is waiting to greet me by the door. I am impressed by the marble floors and high ceilings as I walk in. This is a beautiful building.

After being introduced to the office staff, I am given a seat by a still sunny window to prepare for the interview. Yan soon pops through the French doors that connect the office to a full kitchen. He is not clad in a stylish suit or chef's uniform as I imagined he would be, instead he is wearing a denim shirt, jeans cut at the ankle, and worn brown loafers. "I was out gardening before you arrived," Yan explains with a smile.

Our grand chef enjoys "a simple life." But in fact it is a simple and busy life. As a celebrity chef, honorary doctor of Humane Letters with The Colorado Institute of Art, and the winner of countless awards, a Daytime Emmy and two prestigious James Beard Awards to name a few, Martin Yan's calendar is perpetually booked full of public engagements and charity events.

As it is, immediately following our meeting Yan must set off to prepare for a redeye flight to Chicago connecting to Louisville for a fundraiser benefiting underprivileged children. But nevertheless, he still has time to serve me tea and snacks. And throughout our talk, he is gracious and attentive, never rushed even though the phone is ringing and calls need to be made.

At the end of our interview, I leave with not only a tape of a great conversation, but also with a knife personally sharpened by the chef and three autographed books. I couldn't have asked for more.

Kris: Growing up, did you always know that you wanted to be a chef? What inspired you to become a great chef?

Chef Yan: First of all, I can't really claim to be a great chef. I think that my inspiration had a lot to do with my background. Just like if you were brought up on a farm, you would most likely carry on your father's business as a farmer; I was brought up in the kitchen and ended up becoming a chef. My father owned a restaurant in China before I was born, and even though the business was taken over by someone else after my birth, I still hung around the restaurant kitchen all the time.

At thirteen, when I arrived in Hong Kong after leaving China, I made a living by working in a restaurant. As a student at the University of California, Davis, I taught Chinese cooking. And after I graduated, I gained more experience working with restaurants, writing cookbooks, and doing television shows. So basically, I have been working with the foods sciences, restaurants, food, and cooking all my life and I just happened to have the opportunity to be on television. One thing just led to another and now I've done probably close to two thousand programs.

I remember when I was in college, I used to watch Julia Child's cooking show during dinner and joke with my roommates about becoming a TV chef. Actually, the introduction to my new cookbook will be an essay written by Julia Child. It will be the first time that Julia's ever written an actual piece discussing her love and passion for Chinese cooking and culture, so it's very special.

I've come a long way, been in the business a long time, and I'm still enjoying myself. I think, just like with any profession, whether you're considered to be a great chef or a great athlete, it's the love and passion for your work that keeps you coming back.

Kris: Being great takes more than inspiration, you must have a love and passion for what you do. You've had a lifetime of achievement, won almost every coveted award out there, what is it that continues to drive you in this business?

Well, you know, if you get into the profession because you think you can make a lot of money, you can never become successful. I think a lot of times it's not money that's the primary motivation factor; it's the passion for your job and the professional and personal satisfaction that you get out of doing what you do that motivates you. If you don't have that passion, that love, sooner or later, you're going to give up. Sometimes you face rejection, you cannot please everybody, and what happens is that you get discouraged.

But if you're passionate about what you do, it's all worth it and you'll keep going. It is definitely difficult, but you'll continue because you love it. Like today, I am flying out to Chicago on a redeye flight when I just came back from there yesterday.

But the thing is that I love what I do. I don't like the travelling part of it; travelling nowadays is very stressful, but I have to travel in order to make a living. In fact, Chicago isn't my final destination; from Chicago I have to get on a connecting flight to Louisville to do a fundraiser for underprivileged children. We're trying to raise scholarship money, so that those kids will have a chance, get opportunities, and be able to go to school.

It's tough so if you don't love what you do, it doesn't matter how much money you make. It doesn't matter how famous you are. Sooner or later you'll get burnt out.

Kris: People all over the world watch your show. You have fans from across the globe. How does it feel to be a part of so many people's lives?

Chef Yan: I've never considered myself a celebrity or even part of the entertainment business. I'm a cooking teacher. People tell me that they've seen my show in Hong Kong, Sydney, London, Singapore, Shanghai, Guangzhou, everywhere, Yan Can Cook is one of the most popular cooking shows in all the world.

But for me, I am satisfied simply knowing that what I do touches somebody. For example, one of the most common responses that I get is from young couples who want to thank me for creating well-balanced, healthy dishes that their children enjoy.

Because normally with Western cuisine, you'll serve vegetables separate from the meat, so kids will eat the meat and never touch the vegetables. But everybody needs a well balanced diet. So when I do Chinese cooking, I mix everything together, then the kids have to eat their vegetables. They won't have the patience to pick them out.

Unknowingly and indirectly, I'm helping young people eat a healthier diet. I also get many emotional responses from people who thank me saying that their departed father, mother, or grandmother used to love my show. They tell me that their loved one would laugh and have a good time while they watched my show.

So even though I'm not able to make a big difference, I know that my show touches somebody. The hoopla, the applause, the praises have never excited me. It's the personal stories, the opportunities for people to share, that re-energizes me and gives me enthusiasm. It makes me want to do more.

And also being a Chinese-American, I have an opportunity that millions of Chinese-Americans don't have. I can represent my culture while helping not only the Chinese-American community, but also the community at large. Some people never contribute anything positive to society, they may even drain our resources, but most of us try to do something better, to give back.

There's really no other reason for me to run around like I do. It's not for the money, I'd do it for free. You know, I'm not being paid to be at this Louisville fundraiser for the next two and a half days. I don't calculate what will make me look good or help my career in that way.

When you enjoy what you do, work becomes play. It doesn't matter how physically or mentally tired you are, you never get tired of what you do. I feel very privileged in this way.

A lot of people don't enjoy their job, they may even hate it, but I am lucky enough to be able to make a living through my passion. Being a public figure has also been difficult though.

Kris: For several years there have been rumors about your accent. Some have accused you of creating a fake accent for entertainment value. Can you comment on the subject?

Chef Yan: Well, I think there has been some misunderstanding regarding my accent. Anyone that has come to America past the age of eighteen will be able to understand when I say that you can never shake your accent. Look at Jacques Pepin for instance. Jacques Pepin has been in America for over forty years and he still sounds as if he just came from France.

Southern Chinese who speak Cantonese have trouble speaking the Northern dialect Mandarin and vice versa. It's the same for an American trying to learn Chinese. They will always have an accent.

I did not pick up English until I was sixteen years old. I was not born in this country. A lot of people don't even know that. They don't know anything about my background, that I was born and raised in China, that English is my second language.

In fact, when I first taught Chinese cooking in college, most of my students couldn't even understand what I was saying. My wife is always correcting my English because there are just some words that I cannot pronounce correctly.

But people will always have their opinion and you can't say or do anything about it. That's why, from the very beginning, I've been saying that you can't please everybody all the time. No matter how hard you try, there are always people who will find something wrong. Some people are just so critical.

I just hope that all people, all Chinese will continue to be united. Why is America such a great country. It is because we stand united. The problem with a lot of Chinese is that they put up divisions between Taiwanese, Hong Kong natives, mainlanders. We are never united. I really hope that the Chinese can be more united.

There's a Chinese saying, "A bucket of sand is scattered once spilled". So, basically, those people who make such accusations don't understand my background and they don't understand how difficult it is to learn a new language. I would like to see how well those people could speak Mandarin or Cantonese, if they could do it without any accent. Unless you are young, it's very difficult to pick up a language.

Kris: How do you think your celebrity has affected you family?

Chef Yan: If you ask anybody, they'll tell you that I don't like to dwell on the celebrity status. I live a very low-key life. I don't have a manager; my team doesn't have a PR agency or a PR/advertising machine working behind the scenes.

We simply love what we do; we're just professional people. My marketing and communications director is a communications graduate from the University of California at Berkeley and the rest of us are just basically chefs.

We just want to promote the culinary culture of Asia. If you look around, we don't have anything expensive, we don't drive expensive cars. I myself was working in the garden all day with the gardener. I have a little herb and vegetable garden and a small greenhouse at my home.

My life is very simple. I live in, probably, the smallest house in my area. I enjoy the quiet life. You don't have to show people how successful you are. I am definitely not into the celebrity thing. If people think I have that status, I'm honored, but I don't really pay attention to it all. I'm just having fun.

I think being famous is more of a hindrance, a constraint, than just letting yourself be free. As I said, if people love what I do, if they enjoy it, I appreciate it. I always joke with the people that don't, "If you don't like what I do, you do it!" With all the travel time involved in your profession, do you find it hard to balance your family and career?

Well, I'm not the only one trying to balance career and family. Anybody with a demanding career has to travel a great deal. We live in the age of the multinational corporation. Many of us are doing business on a worldwide scale and have to spend a lot of time on the road. IBM, Apple, Sun Micro, they're all worldwide companies. You can't just stay in one place to make a living anymore.

There's a Chinese saying, "Travelling ten miles is more important than reading ten thousand books". When you travel, you experience life and you are more open minded. People who don't travel cannot have a global view, all they see is what's in front of them. Those people cannot accept new things because all they know is where they live.

When you travel you are able to see and experience the beauty and suffering of this world; you can understand the contrast of human life. And I can read, write, and, to a certain degree, relax while I'm traveling. At least I love what I do.

I made a personal appearance several years ago at Oakland Children's Hospital that made me realize how short and precious life really is. I visited and performed for children who I knew did not have that much longer to live. And I realized that I have so many opportunities doing what I do, so I just try to enjoy it as much as I can.

Kris: Growing up as an Asian-American, I didn't have too many Asian-American role models on television. It meant a lot to see you as a successful Asian-American on television. What are you hoping to convey to the public as a role model? What have you learned through your experiences that you would like to teach to the younger generation?

Chef Yan: Well, I can't say that I consider myself a role model and I didn't really intend to become role model when I started out. But recently I have been doing a lot of presentations for Chinese Student's Associations on various campuses nationwide.

Many of my speeches have centered on Asian-American pride. I always tell people that, as minorities in this country, we have to learn to accept a lot of things, but at the same time we each have our own identity and can never, never forget our roots.

If you don't know where you come from, you don't know where you are going. As a Chinese-American, I understand and appreciate that China has several thousands years worth of history.

Chinese culture has a lot of virtues that are tremendously valuable to not only us as Asian-Americans, but also the world in general.

The Chinese know the value of contentment. Some people are just never content no matter how much fame or money they have; they just continue to push, push, push. But the Chinese philosophy is to be content with what you have. If you aren't content how can you be happy?

But at the same time, you learn to be positive and always strive for the best. Best does not mean more money or a high position on the corporate ladder; it means being positive and assertive. I am probably more assertive than many American born Chinese because I have nothing to lose. I don't have any hang-ups.

I came to America knowing that I had to have a very assertive and positive attitude about myself and what I do. I knew that I couldn't worry about what people think. It doesn't matter who you are, whether you are the most successful artist, athlete, or politician, you can never please everybody all the time. There will always be people who don't think highly of you, who don't think you're doing the best job, who don't like you, but what can you do?

The most important thing is that you believe in yourself and trust your instincts. Be positive, helpful, generous, and do the best you can. And if people still don't like you, there's not much you can do about it. You will never get a good night's sleep if you worry about what people think.

Happiness is within. It has nothing to do with how much applause you get or how many people praise you. Happiness comes when you believe that you have done something truly meaningful.

When I retire or pass away, I will be able to look back and say that this has been an exciting life. That's all that matters.

Kris: Do you have any role models as a chef?

Chef Yan: I personally don't have any role models, but I do look up to anyone that is successful, like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. Why are they so successful? It's not because they were born to be great, but because they practiced their craft all the time. They practiced harder than anybody else.

So I look up to anyone who is successful in their field because I know they have paid their dues with hard work and determination.

Kris: What do you think about all the new cooking shows that are on TV now?

Chef Yan: Just like with any business, everybody copies. You can never stop competition. So that's why you have keep moving ahead. I don't need to be number one to be happy. I was never number one, but I always stayed on the very top.

When I started out, there were only about three cooking shows including myself, now it's over 150 cooking shows in the U.S. alone. But are still doing what we do. And I'm not going to stop because there is so much competition. You just have to maintain a positive attitude and have the courage to take a risk. It doesn't matter if people say that I'm not the best chef. I never said I was the best chef. Nobody is the best chef. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Everybody's great and everybody's good in their own way.

I feel fortunate to be able to work with all these wonderful people, but that's not really the point. The point is that I have the opportunity to work with these great people to do something good.

Kris: What are some of the upcoming projects you're working on?

Chef Yan: We are working on a lot of things. We've just finished another fifty-two episode series called, "Chef Martin Yan's Chinatown." In this series I'll be introducing Chinatowns from all over the world.

There will also be a companion book to the show also titled, "Chef Martin Yan's Chinatown". This is the book for which Julia Child will be writing an essay.

We're also starting in the restaurant business which you'll hear more about later. In addition to being a chef you are also a consultant to many restaurants and hotels.

Kris: Can you tell us a little bit about what you do as a consultant?

Chef Yan: Yes, I do a lot of consulting for restaurants, hotels, and food companies. I studied food science in college and basically just work with the restaurants, staff personnel, and wineries.

You and your team create and test all the recipes on your TV shows and in your books. How do you come up with all these innovative new food ideas?

My team works together really well and I am able to travel all over to get ideas. I always have a camcorder with me to videotape anything interesting that I see.

And now for the classic stranded on an island set-up. If you were stranded on an island and could only have one item of food, any type of food, with you, what would it be?

If I could only have one type of food with me, I would bring soy sauce. The reason being that if I have soy sauce, I can flavor a lot of things. So if I cook fish, scallops, wild rabbits, bamboo shoots anything, at least I can season it. I would bring a bottle of soy sauce or some soy sauce because then I can make my dishes delicious. Soy sauce is really a multi-purpose seasoning.

Kris: What are some of you favorite foods or food smells?

Chef Yan: I love the smell of lemongrass, tangerine peels, and pummelo peels. They're almost like perfume in your kitchen.

I love seafood in general, whether it's raw or steamed or deep-fried. I love steamed fish. Anything seafood love, even more than meat. I eat a lot of vegetables.

My life is really very simple. In general I love to eat anything. I enjoy anything that is well prepared, a good spaghetti, lasagna, taco, steak, sushi, refried beans. As long as the food is well prepared and not overdone, I think it tastes good. It doesn't matter if it's Chinese, Japanese, anything.

The only thing that counts is if you know how to prepare your ingredients. Even if with the best and freshest ingredients in the world, if your dish is tasteless or burnt, it's ruined.

Kris: With what type of foods do you keep your home refrigerator stocked?

Chef Yan: I always have a lot of bones, pork bones and chicken bones, because I like stocks. When you have a good stock, you can make a good soup.

The Chinese love a good soup. You can do almost anything with soup stock, it's like a strong foundation. When you have the right foundation, everything tastes good.

I also have a lot of preserved foods, things that will keep for a long time like dried fish, seaweed or lotus seed. I carry a lot of basic sauces and tofu too. And I always keep my refrigerator stocked with vegetables, lots of vegetables and fruits. I don't have very much junk food though. I usually don't eat too much of that stuff.

More Yan Can Cook!

For more of Martin's fabulous recipes, show information, books, and cookware, click on the following links.

Every book purchased at Martin's online store comes autographed by Martin himself and includes a bonus gift! Check out his latest "Martin Yan's Asian Favorites" and others at his official online store.
[Buy Now]

Martin Yan's Official Website

Martin's Asian Recipes

Yan Can Cook Online Store

Kris: Do you like any junk food?

Chef Yan: I normally don't eat junk food. Actually, I eat fairly balanced meals. I have a good lunch and cook leftovers for breakfast. I don't like to waste anything. Any food left over from the night before is always eaten the next day.

And the leftover rice is made into porridge. Everything is recycled.

Kris: Can you share with us a recipe to make great rice?

Chef Yan: I don't have one single recipe, but this one is very simple.

An easy, fairly foolproof thing you can do is saute your plain rice with some ginger and garlic in a tiny bit of oil. Then cook the rice with some homemade chicken broth. You can steam some vegetables on top and add leftover meat or seafood or stir-fry to the mixture for a really delicious and healthy meal. It's like a paella. You can cook it in a rice cooker or a regular pot.

I've done a recipe like this on a recent show.

Kris: Do you cook for your family and staff when you're home?

Chef Yan: When I'm home, I normally cook lunch for the staff and meals for my family. I love to cook. I have a lot of cooking tools. In fact I have a whole drawer full of knives. Cooking tools, especially cutlery, are my toys.

You've given numerous interviews, have there ever been any questions that you wished you didn't have to answer or any questions that you wished you could have answered?

I am a very open person. I really don't have anything to hide. I don't have any reason to withhold an answer to a question or need to justify my behavior. I think a reporter always comes into an interview with some idea for a story; they will ask you whatever question they think will get that story out of you. If they want to know about my political views, they'll ask about politics. If the want to know about my religious values, they'll ask about religion.

Like I said before, I live a very simple life. I don't have any complicated stories to hide or disclose. I am just a normal professional with a great job and a great life.

Kris: Thank you for this interview.

Chef Yan: Thank you. It is a pleasure to meet you.


AsianConnections contributing writer Kris Man is studying at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

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