Long before cooking shows were popular, one man was already on screen, making his mark with ‘Yan Can Cook’. The Chinese cooking show started screening on US television in the late 1970s. It was considered a classic by many.
Now 40 years down the road, his game is still strong and the man is still equipped with the same passion when he first started.
“Back in the day, I was at the right place at the right time. In those days, nobody wanted to be on TV because cooking shows were just not very popular,” says the 68-year-old Yan in an interview with the New Straits Times.
Born in Guangzhou, China to a restaurateur father and a mother who runs a grocery store, Yan’s passion for cooking began from an early age.
“For as long as I can remember, I have always loved cooking and food. There was food everywhere in the house anyway since my father always brought home food from his restaurant.
“I also learned from a very young age the differences between good food and bad,” he recounted.
At 13, he packed up his bags and pursued his love for cooking by enrolling at Munsang College in Kowloon. As a student, he worked at his uncle’s Chinese restaurant and learned about the traditional method of Chinese barbecue there.
He then refined his natural talent at the Overseas Institute of Cookery in Hong Kong before leaving for the US to pursue a Master of Science in Food Science at the University of California, Davis.
It was while studying in the US that Yan discovered a flair for teaching. In 1978, he was offered a TV show ‘Yan Can Cook’.
Yan had served as an instructor at various top culinary institutions such as the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson and Wales University and the California Culinary Academy in the US as well as at Hong Kong’s Chinese Cuisine Institute.
In 1985, he founded Yan Can International Cooking School in California; followed by Martin Yan Culinary Arts Centre in Shenzen, China in 2007.
Besides teaching, he has restaurants in the US – Yan Can Asian Bistro and SensAsian – which offer inventive pan-Asian menus.
“I love what I do and when you love what you do, it makes your job fun. I don’t think I am any different from other TV hosts, I’m simply passionate about my job.
“I have filmed shows in Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even Malaysia. I simply love to share, cook and teach, and that has always kept me motivated,” he explained.
Yan’s newest cooking show, Martin Yan’s Asian Favourites is an eight-episode programme which airs every Thursday at 9pm on Asian Food Channel (Astro channel 703).
The show is a culinary homage to Yan’s lifetime spent travelling around Asia. He also shares tricks of the trade and insider’s knowledge.
With his signature cooking style and affable personality, Yan invites viewers right into his kitchen to see him cook Asian dishes. Featuring a new theme each week, he prepares dishes influenced by the places and people he has visited in the region.
Yan admits that he loves to cook simple dishes that use easy-to-access ingredients.
“One of my favourite dishes ‘You Tiao’, an elongated Chinese donut typically served with soy milk and Chinese rice porridge,” said the chef who is dedicated to demystifying the art of Chinese cooking and bringing it to Western audiences.
“People always tell me that Asian cooking is very complicated and time consuming, but it’s so easy once you understand the basics,” he shares.
Yan lists out claypot rice with chicken and sausage, braised tofu, and congee as his top three comfort food.
As for the basic ingredients to have in the kitchen for basic Chinese cuisine, he said one needs to keep these handy – Chinese five-spice powder, Hoisin sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce and rice vinegar.
With a belief that people can learn to cook at any stage of their lives, he said cooking is a simple task and anyone can do it once they have the basics right.
However, he throws caution to young people who think that cooking professionally is for everybody.
“You must have really huge passion for what you’re doing. Young people always think ‘Wow, I can do that’ after watching chefs on TV but, if this isn’t your passion, don’t spend money at a culinary school to do something that you might end up quitting,” he said.
However, that doesn’t mean cooking is only for the select few. Like his catchphrase when he signs off each episode of his “classic” cooking show: “If Yan can cook, so can you!”
Martin Yan’s Asian Favourites airs tomorrow at 9pm on Asian Food Channel (Astro channel 703).