10 Minutes with Martin Yan

May 03, 2011
*Special to asia!

Theasiamag snuck a 10 minute interview with celebrity chef Martin Yan when he was in Singapore recently. He talks about rediscovering his roots – and why he’s the Jack Nicholson of the food world.


It’s noon time on a Thursday, and I’m in a mall on Singapore’s sky-scraping, scenery-chewing shopping belt. But three floors above overpriced clothing and over-indulged teenagers, there’s a ritual going on.

A celebrity chef’s ritual, that is. I find I’ve unwittingly stepped into a buzz of preparation for a food show, in a bid to secure an interview with Martin Yan. There’s a frazzled production manager, lighting guys, nervous interns, all buzzing about with clipboard on arm.

And at the centre of it all, the famously exuberant chef is in quiet preparation for a studio audience, slicing and dicing with a concentration matched only by my fear.

Have I intruded? Would he chew me up and spit me out the floor to ceiling glass doors of the Asian Food Channel studio?

But it turns out the Emmy award-winning TV chef, restaurateur and author of 30 cookbooks is as accessible off-screen as he is on. “How long will the interview take?” Er, ten minutes? And we’re out the glass doors.

The chef of the PBS series “Yan Can Cook” – running since 1982 – is more than his famous showmanship, humour and the ability to carve a chicken in 18 seconds. As a young adult, he worked in rigorous Hong Kong kitchens before making his way to the US for a Masters in food science – before it was fashionable.

Soon he was helming a wildly successful cooking show that he admits made him ‘one of the early ones’ to introduce American audiences to the food heritage of China. He decoded Chinese food for the American kitchen; a remarkable feat for an audience that mostly had, up till that point, mostly only experienced sordid stir fries and every possible permutation of sweet and sour.

Martin Yan explains that he has, of late, been returning to his roots. With an excitement that makes him sound almost like a besotted tourist, the Guangzhou-born Yan now leads tours to China, bringing both enthusiasts and food professionals to local markets and lessons with local chefs.

There are ethnic minorities in [China] who don’t even have the written language... And for food they harvest whatever they can from the water, from the mountains.

Of particular interest, he says, is ‘hidden’ China. “You know when people think about China, they think Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou. But you find some places in hidden China where people have been the same for thousands of years. There are ethnic minorities in provinces who don’t even have the written language. It’s like time has stood still. And for food they harvest whatever they can from the water, from the mountains.”

But he isn’t ignoring the rest of Asia – or more specifically, its Chinese diaspora. In a recent offering Martin Yan’s Feast, he had a recipe for Nyonya (Peranakan) top hats. “I think Nyonya food is a fascinating fusion of culture, people as well as cuisine. Unfortunately, nobody’s really promoting it aggressively, and I hope to do that. And I want to really study Fujian, where these Nyonyas came from, to go to their hometowns and talk about traditions.”

As if to affirm his affection for Chinese soil, Martin Yan has brought his Yan Can Cook series of restaurants to Beijing. Known as Yan Se – “Yan means salt in Mandarin,” he explains - the restaurant serves Chinese food, although he admits its concept is almost foreign. “The restaurant has an open kitchen – but in China, an open kitchen is very, very unusual. I want people to see how our chef does things while they’re dining. And if anybody wants to learn how to make Peking duck or dim sum, they can head into the kitchen and learn how to do it.”

Having helmed an Emmy-award winning TV show for 29 years, does he see himself retiring? “No. I always say, look at people like Jack Nicholson. He’s in his seventies, but people like him are still working! If you love what you do, the pay check is just a bonus. It’s not work. So I think I’ll continue to do what I do – I might slow down a little bit, and maybe pick up golfing. Or fishing. And maybe I’ll someday be able to change my personality from a type A to a type B.”

Simone ErasmusWhen she isn't writing children's storybooks or expounding on food, Simone can be found in the kitchen, concocting fiery curries or bravely attempting layers of genoise. She has written for The Business Times Singapore, and also contributed to research in arts and culture across the region at the National University of Singapore. She is currently writing a series of books for preschoolers, to be published soon to the iPhone and iPad.

Contact Simone