Oi talks to one of TV’s most loved cooking personalities….
Inside Ngan Dinh, the signature Chinese restaurant at the Windsor Plaza Hotel, Chef Martin Yan is mic’d up and working the crowd, hopping from table to table chatting up admiring fans. Diners from all parts of the globe are here to see the most unlikely of TV personalities ― the Chinese-born, Hong kong-trained, US-based star of Yan Can Cook, one of the longest-running cooking shows on television, chalking up more than 1,900 shows and travelogues broadcast in over 50 countries, including Vietnam. Renowned for his humor and slapstick, it isn’t long before Chef Yan has a frizzy-haired Australian teen up at the demonstration table, ungainly wielding a cleaver with the malaise of someone who’s never seen the inside of a kitchen. Within minutes though, she’s slamming down the knife with ninja precision, flattening, peeling and mincing cloves of garlic in one fell swoop. Oi sat down with Chef Yan to talk discrimination, the celebrity chef phenomena and what it’ll take for Vietnamese cuisine to gain international acclaim.
Yan Can Cook debuted in 1978. What was the cooking show landscape like then?
MY: For my first TV show, we had three people in our production team: a lady to help wash dishes and coordinate things, a chef and myself. We made five shows a day and 130 shows in 24 days. People around the world were just beginning to be curious about Chinese food and culture. [At that time], it was all chop suey and chow mein. Our generation was the first to showcase traditional regional cuisine.
As an Asian chef with heavily accented English, competing with traditionally Caucasian TV hosts, did you experience any discrimination?
MY: A lot of my friends have experienced racism, a glass ceiling for Asians, but I’ve been fortunate. My style is different from a lot of TV hosts… I’m always having a good time. When you have fun, people have fun, so they’re less critical. When you smile, no one can give you a hard time. I’m sharing my love and passion of food, the thing we all love; I’m not talking about religion or politics. When I get on stage, I tell people: “We’re all here for the same reason. If you don’t know how to do [something], I’ll come to your home to teach you.” It’s all about making friends. But I have bad news for you. If you don’t like it, I don’t give a damn. I just say it with a smile.
Cooking shows have come a long way since you started. There are now entire channels devoted to food. How do you feel about the “celebrity chef” trend?
MY: When I started, there was a total of three shows, along with Julia Child. Now cooking has become massive. It’s not just teaching cooking… Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray have become talk show hosts. [But] I was never a personality. I’m a professional. I’m a cooking teacher. On PBS [the TV home of Yan Can Cook], we’re much more low key than the Food Network which is a commercial entity. I’ve never considered myself to be in the entertainment industry. I have no pony tails or rings. Nowadays they all have tattoos… I’m an Old School guy. How I would define a “celebrity chef,” a true master, is someone who can turn simple ingredients into magic. Turn nothing into something.
You’ve been to Vietnam many times and have even done a cooking/travel series on Vietnam. What about the country appeals to you?
MY: We spent 60 days traveling all over Vietnam, and completed 26 shows for Martin’s Taste of Vietnam [broadcast throughout Vietnam in 2013]. It was the first time Vietnam has been introduced with such a massive undertaking. We went to a fish sauce manufacturer in Phu Quoc, harvested birds’ nests, experienced some fascinating things.
The people all over Vietnam are so charming. When they talk, I don’t know whether they’re talking or singing. The Vietnamese diet is also wonderful. I love the pomelo salad, papaya salad, the big pancakes you can throw anything in to.
There are dishes made of leftover things that no one wants to use. Look at broken rice, a dish that turns a wasted, useless ingredient into a gourmet dining experience, creating something out of nothing. These broken rice ladies make one dish for 40 years so they become experts in that single dish. You can call them ‘single dish restaurants.’ How can you beat them in quality and expertise?
In Vietnam, without huge highways, people have to eat locally. In America, during winter, things are grown somewhere else and picked when they’re green. Papayas are green, tomatoes are green, bananas are green; they’re tasteless. Here there are fish tanks right in the restaurant. How many times have you gone into a Western restaurant and seen that? Frozen is not the same as fresh.
What will it take for Vietnamese cuisine to explode internationally to the degree that Chinese and Thai food has?
MY: Vietnamese food is going through the same path as chop suey and chow mein of Chinese food. If you go to the US, most Vietnamese restaurants are just pho and nothing else. People don’t truly appreciate [the cuisine] because it’s not offered on the menu. I think it takes that certain step and certain people to help promote it. There’s no single famous Vietnamese chef to help promote it yet. I’m not an expert in Vietnamese cuisine, but I hope to introduce it through my show and bring it to a different level.
You’re here as a culinary ambassador for the WMC Group which has restaurants all over the city, including Cafe Central, Amigo and Ngan Dinh. What’s restaurant consulting like?
MY: Chefs in the kitchen can get tired. They don’t have time to be inspired. I’m here, not to teach them how to cook, but to inspire them.
In classic Chinese cuisine, the entire meal is cooked in one pot. In the old days, they didn’t have enough big plates, so at big parties everything was put together in one pot and everyone just dug in: family, friends, villagers. Maybe one family had chicken, another family a fish. You could taste my mother’s cooking skill, each family’s recipe. I’m all about classic Chinese dishes with modern presentation. I’m just adding my personal touch, my signature, like an artist, so when you see it, you know who made it, like the touch of wasabi in my Yin Yang Shrimp dish, or my Fish in Pumpkin Sauce with a bit of caviar. Just that extra touch transforms the whole dish. I want to leave a legacy with the restaurants I work with. Martin was here and now the dumplings taste different.
Of all your projects – restaurants, cooking schools, more than 30 cookbooks and 3,700 cooking shows broadcast worldwide – what’s brought you the most satisfaction?
MY: Twenty-five years ago, people were never exposed to regional cuisine. Food habits are hard to shake, worse than trying to get someone to quit smoking. But now, in many cities, you have everything, including regional specialties. I wouldn’t say that what we’ve done has contributed significantly to that, but what we’ve done promoting Chinese food and culture has at least encouraged people to be curious.
You know, I have done so much that everything else is just a bonus. For instance, I was recently selected for the Top 10 Outstanding Chinese Award. Ten people out of 1.4 billion who’ve made a contribution to China! People are always telling me that when they were kids, they watched my show instead of cartoons. In my approach to cooking, “Yan can, so can you!”, I try to inspire people. I want to create happy families and happy kitchens.
I always tell people that I love what I do so much, the paycheck is just a bonus. I’d be happy to do it for free, but they insist on paying me!
Images by Ngoc Tran