This interview has been edited for length and clarity by Xfinity.
On a fall evening in Emeryville, Calif., Martin Yan is affable and happy about taping his show in front of a studio audience. Just back from a trip to Chengdu, China, he excitedly shows the audience—on this particular evening, a group of KQED members—footage that they shot while on location in Chengdu: adorable pandas chewing on bamboo.
Yan is best known as the energetic, crowd-pleasing Chinese American host of the long-running cooking show, “Yan Can Cook.” He is also a restaurateur, cookbook author, and has his own line of kitchen appliances. “Yan Can Cook” launched in 1979, premiering on Canadian TV and then landing on PBS in 1982. For the past 38 years, he’s filmed more than 3,500 cooking show episodes in the US and internationally.
Yan is taping the cooking portion of the show on that particular evening, making a Malaysian shrimp dish with spicy chili coconut milk. I caught up with the host just before the taping in the Emeryville studio. CAAM has honored Yan at CAAMFeast. The new season, “Yan Can Cook: Spice Kingdom” and “Taste of Malaysia with Martin Yan” premiered February 14, 2018 on PBS.
Throughout these years, what are some reflections you have about “Yan Can Cook”?
Martin Yan: Actually, I was probably one of the first Asian Americans breaking into the mainstream media as a daily cooking-show host. Our show used to be daily. We produced 130 shows a year. That means it lasts for six months, and it repeats once. Since then, we have done close to 3,500 cooking shows worldwide. I’ve probably done more shows than most people on Earth. And this is one of the longest continuously running food and travel shows on the planet.
Can you talk about the series and where it’s filmed?
MY: When I was in Chengdu, we made “Yan Can Cook: Chengdu.” Everything I do is “Yan Can Cook: Chengdu,“ “Yan Can Cook: Thailand.” What makes our show unique is we’re not just doing food. We’re talking about heritage, history, food and culture. We have a big crew—20 some people travel all over Korea and all over Chengdu to film. Sixty-five percent of the show content is on location. About 35 percent is studio cooking.
I brought back a lot of props, a lot of ingredients, and a lot of cooking techniques that I learned. I basically want to share with people in North America. Because chefs don’t know how to present it to the home cooks. They just do it in big woks and big fires, and nobody can do it at home. Here, I basically interpret, using the same technique and same ingredients, and I do it the way they can do it at home.
You’ve been doing this a long time—introducing Chinese cooking to an American audience. Do you feel like non-Chinese people are seeing Chinese food differently now?
MY: I think things are changing so fast. There’s more business going on in China. You go to the Great Wall, about one-tenth of people are tourists from America. The first thing they do is eat local food. This is the same reason why Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese food is so popular. A lot of people travel there. When you go there, you taste local flavors.
I think Chinese food has made the inroads over 150 years ago and continues to be popular [in the U.S.]. There’s been a transition from typical chop suey, chow mein food culture to more sophisticated, refined and diverse regional cuisine. Now you can see restaurants that specialize in dumplings, or like Din Tai Fung, xiao long bao.
What are your thoughts about the new wave of Chinese cooking in the U.S.?
MY: Human history is always evolving. I’m a more traditionalist, and everything I do is more traditional. Even though I also go with, “Hey, if you don’t find betel nuts or this and that, use almonds, use other things.” But that kind of inclusion of ingredients doesn’t mean you’re changing it. I’m quite sure a lot of the young chefs have a good understanding of the basic principle of Asian techniques, the spirit of Asian cuisine, whether it is Chinese or Japanese. One of the top Japanese chefs basically combines some of the French techniques and Japanese techniques together.
You see a lot of Chinese and Asian chefs—you go to Slanted Door or Chef Tony at MY China [Yan’s restaurant in San Francisco]—they’re all using their own training and culinary foundation to explore new frontiers. I think it’s great for young chefs to explore new things as long as they’re offering something really, really fresh, healthy and delicious, and have the right audience. Being creative, inventive and contemporary while still maintaining the basic foundation is the way to go.
What are your favorite dishes to cook at home?
MY: Most chefs, even if they love to cook at home, they normally cook the simplest. I stock up my restaurant with all the seasoning and basic ingredients. I always have a lot of leafy vegetables. This is my basic diet. I eat a vegetable-based diet. I haven’t gained a pound in 30 years. I’m not a vegetarian, but I read a lot of articles about how healthy a vegetable-based diet is. And using meat as a condiment and as a flavoring agent rather than eating a lot of meat. We are a nation of overeating. The key is to eat properly, have the right diet and exercise. I work with AARP as an ambassador with Gary Locke and we promote an active, healthy lifestyle.
A lot of people in America, when they get older, stay put at home and watch television. I encourage them to get up, and move around and say hello to your neighbor. Cooking something at home and share with your neighbors. The whole idea is sharing. When you share, you have a sense of satisfaction.
People always say, why don’t you retire? If I enjoy what I’m doing, why should I retire? I went to see Lionel Richie. This guy is about 70 years old. Still singing and jumping around! All these entertainers and actors and Supreme Court justices … if you feel that you’re making a contribution and enjoy what you do, why retire?
Do you feel like you’re doing more now?
MY: I don’t know what happened! In my old age, I seem to be a lot busier. I used to only do things in America. Now I do things all over the world. I have more projects than I can handle in Asia. I can speak Mandarin, Cantonese, English and some Toisanese—I encourage a lot of people to be bilingual.
So, for this next season, what can the audience look forward to?
MY: I bring you the very best of the cuisine, where the cuisine came from—the history, the cultural backdrop, the heritage—and along the way, the art and craft because that’s a part of the lifestyle. Not only do you eat healthy, you cook healthy, but we’re living; it’s a living world. You gotta enjoy life. So, basically, I’m happy to be where I am. I don’t think I’ll ever dream or contemplate retirement.
Momo Chang is the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media.
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