Martin Yan Is Chinese Cooking's Greatest Evangelist

Editor's note: Lucky Peach was a magical food magazine that existed from 2011 to 2017. It was beloved by readers, regarded as a destination publication for writers, and won a slew of James Beard Awards. After its untimely demise, the website—and all the stories it ever published—disappeared into the digital ether. In the spirit of resurrecting the dead (and because the copyright reverts to the author), The Takeout will be republishing stories from Lucky Peach's archives—for posterity. I originally wrote this profile of Chinese celebrity chef Martin Yan for the fall 2012 issue. 

To hang out with Martin Yan is to witness a stage spectacular—a circus of dangerous feats with sharp implements and flying animal parts, all with an undertone of evangelism. Chinese cooking is the message. Opening your mind is the way. He has but one wish: Turn agnostics into believers, imbuing them with the conviction that if some guy named Yan can cook Chinese food, then yes, so can they.

On a Saturday afternoon in August, in the lower level of Macy's in downtown San Francisco, a sizable sample of Yan's legion of fans squeezed into a cramped seating area to see him perform his greatest hits. Yan did not disappoint. In a blur, he slapped his cleaver and turned garlic cloves into minced paste. Then he announced that he would bone a whole chicken in 18 seconds. But first he had to relax the chicken.

"The Chinese say, 死雞撐飯蓋. This is a nervous chicken. The legs are sticking up. When a chicken is nervous you can't cut through, because the muscles are too tight."

He twirled the drumsticks in circles and massaged the chicken lovingly, wriggled its wings and made it dance like Charlie Chaplin with dinner rolls. Yan prepared himself with a few leg dips and three Hail Mary's.

Then it began. Eighteen seconds later, a whole chicken was separated into eight pieces. Frenzied acolytes took hundreds of pictures with their DSLR cameras.

I picked 18 seconds purposely, so I can talk about the significance of numbers and tradition. Everything is about education. Everything is about using the right moment to talk about culture. I can talk about why 14 or 24 are not good. (Four is a homophone for death.)

I produce a show for the mainstream, a very American-style show. The way I move is not typical of a Chinese chef. The dishes we do are not typical of a Chinese restaurant. The way I talk, the way I do things—typical Chinese chefs would not talk with emotion or use their hands to gesture. But I'm a teacher. I'm used to bringing everybody's attention to me. My career path is about education, about promoting a culture. It's not like I'm cooking in a kitchen facing the running waterfall for my entire career.

In general I'm very quiet. But when you are performing in front of people, people expect to see you a certain way.

In order for me to reach the masses, reach the mainstream, I have to show emotion. Being engaging is about energy, about emotion, so everything is about energy, energy, energy. You can see when I get on stage, I'm a totally transformed person.

It's easy to forget Yan's on-air persona, honed over the course of 33 years to a place of easy caricaturization, is after all, a persona. Yan is the TV chef who doesn't forget the television part of the equation. He's aware that for his customers to reject what he's selling, it's as easy as changing channels.

It takes Yan Can Cook novices approximately three episodes to pick up on his Yannerisms: "Look at this! Look at this!... I will show you... Beauuuutiful... And then, you slice into small pieces. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight!... Everyone say baht! Baht! This means eight in Chinese. Easy."

At the autograph session after the cooking demo, Yan looked jetlagged. He had flown back 24 hours earlier after spending three weeks in Asia. But only the circles around his eyes betrayed his endless exuberance as he dealt with fans wanting "one more photo just in case," and old folks asking old-folk questions ("No MSG at your new restaurant, right?"). One could be forgiven for wondering, after all these years, if Yan actually still enjoyed this.

You cannot fake it. Faking is very tiring. I truly, truly enjoy what I do. When you have fun, when you're happy, that transcends, that is contagious. I don't feel I have really contributed that much to the culinary arts. I can see the growth of Chinese food, restaurants, grocery stores, and how many new immigrants have been able to get employment. Asian food has become more mainstream, more relevant. I just hope that the Yan Can Cook show has contributed in a small way. But I feel happy, not because I have contributed to the culinary arts, but because I can show people how to enjoy what they do. That is important to me.

A lot of people who go to culinary school in America, do it because they want to show up on Food Network. That is dangerous. They see all these people, celebrities. I think many of these kids will be very disappointed in life. There are only a few people who get to be famous.

In my commencement speeches at cooking schools, I always talk about my philosophy, and my own personal journey, then I emphasize the technical side and skill sets. Many of today's culinary students don't have enough skill. After one and a half to two years, a lot of students can't even pick up a knife.

They think, "If I go on YouTube, and if I do something stupid or silly..." They would do anything just to get their names out. They look at people from nowhere who become a phenomenal success, a sensation, and they forget that it's only one out of 10 million that can do that kind of thing, who has that opportunity. 99.9999 percent can't. This society doesn't teach people to be content. That's why a lot of people are miserable.

If people appreciate what I do, I'm happy. If they don't, if they think, Martin you're not really that good, it doesn't really bother me. Just like with a restaurant. Even Thomas Keller—he used to be number one (on the World's 50 Best Restaurant list). Now he's no longer number one. Now someone in Denmark or Spain is number one. I don't think he feels bad. He has been number one, right? I don't think he should feel bad, because what's the difference between number one and number two anyway? If you really want to be number one, to me, it's very tiring. To me, it's very stressful. I don't need to be number one. I don't care to be number one.

If your restaurant is very successful, you think you are at the top. It's not really true. There's a Chinese saying: 一山還有一山高. You think a mountain is the highest, but when you climb to the top, you see a higher mountain. You think you're number one, but there's always someone better than you.

The Chinese also say, 樹大招風. The bigger the tree, the more wind you catch. When you are way up high, way up there, it is very cold, it's very lonely. And I don't want to be lonely. Why do you want to put yourself in the position that you have all these pressures and stresses in life? I don't feel any pressure. I don't feel any stress. I'm having fun.

In 2008, Yan opened the Martin Yan Culinary Arts Center. It closed soon after. He was to partner with Yum! Brand, the parent company of KFC and Taco Bell, to open a series of quick-serve "Yan Can" restaurants. But before they could open, Yan's business partner died of a brain anerysm. "We were supposed to have 50 restaurants by now," Yan said.

We all believed the Culinary Arts Center was a viable project. We wanted visitors to spend five days at the Center learning the regional cuisines of China. Then the next seven days would be a culinary and cultural tour. We finished construction in May 2008, having spent $3 million U.S. It's in a beautiful lychee orchard. And then in June, the largest rainstorm in sixty years hit Southern China, and a lot of things we built were destroyed. The building was leaking everywhere. Then the Tibet riots happened, and the government wasn't issuing a lot of individual visas, particularly to Americans or Europeans. We had to refund 40 people their money—$5,000 each. That's a lot of money. And then in October, the worldwide financial crisis hit. So now it's vacant. I lost about $300,000 of my own money.

But it's not a failure to me. Now we're doing something similar in Beijing. You just move on. Accept reality. Everything is about balance—the yin and yang. As long as try your best and play a fair game, you'll be respected. So I feel calm.

I don't open restaurants because I want to make a lot of money. I want to fulfill my dreams. I want to have the restaurant as a platform to continue what I do. To continue to promote Chinese cuisine and Chinese culture. And I think Chinese food has become mainstream. In general, in any city with over 3,000 people, you're guaranteed to have a Chinese restaurant.

Now you have restaurants that just sell potstickers. You have restaurants that specialize in wonton and jook. You have restaurants that specialize in Hakka cuisine. In the past, Cantonese culture was the most vibrant. Why? Because there were lots of immigrants from Hong Kong. Now Sichuan restaurants, Hunan restaurants are getting more popular. The flavor profile is more suitable for young people. Thirty years ago, you hardly saw any sushi bars. Now you see sushi bars popping up everywhere. It's the Internet, it's the travel, and the exposure, the immigrants...

All of a sudden you go to certain pockets in the Richmond District in San Francisco, or in Vancouver, and it's like an Asian town. A lot of the Chinese will bring their American colleagues. And all of a sudden they get exposed to regional cuisine, regional flavors, without going to China. I do not see this trend spreading to any other smaller or medium cities in the U.S., but in major cities you will see a lot more explosive growth of regional Chinese cuisine.

In San Francisco's Chinatown, a king walked among his dominion. After immigrating to California through Calgary in 1970, Yan attended school at UC Davis. To help pay his tuition, Yan would bring students to San Francisco's Chinatown, where he gave walking tours of temples and the fortune-cookie factory, before capping the day at a dim sum restaurant.

Yan is now 63, but not much has changed. He pointed out his old haunts as we circled Chinatown on foot. There was the underground dining room of Kam Lok, where he spent many meals in his thirties. At Great China Herb Co., open since 1922, Yan exchanged pleasantries with employees and breathed in the medicinal musk. It seemed like every third store had Martin Yan's mug taped to the window.

Yan was stopped five times in five minutes. Even a panhandler recognized him and gushed praise, and Yan dug for spare change, because, well, he had to now.

He strode into a favorite dive, Gourmet Delight BBQ on Stockton Street. "One of the best Chinese barbecue in San Francisco," Yan said, as he passed by his autographed headshot wishing the business "continued success."

The owner, recognizing Yan immediately, fixed him a tray to go. The roast suckling pig's crunchy skin crackled between our molars. Hunks of roast duck, lacquered in its rendered fat, were rich and luscious. Through my shoes I could feel my toes curling into a fist.

"Can't beat it!" Yan told the cooks in his emphatic Cantonese tenor.

He picked up lychee and abnormally long bananas at Sheng Hing Market a few doors down. In front of the shop we watched a scrum of old Chinese ladies dig through discarded boxes. They stuffed scraps of Napa cabbage stems, someone else's garbage, into their plastic bags.

I found all this a bit depressing. But Yan saw the positive. "They don't feel ashamed. They're resourceful," he said. "It's perfectly good cabbage, they'll just use it in soup. Why pay?"

My mother went through the Cultural Revolution. Because we had a business—a grocery store—we were labeled capitalist and they shaved her head. But she is very resilient, and I learned resilience from her. She is one tough cookie.

When we had nothing to eat, what we did was stir-fry marbles with fermented black beans. We just sucked the black beans off the marbles and we ate rice, so psychologically we felt like we were eating something more.

Everything was rationed. We had two yards of fabric each year, and four ounces of oil a month. We went through a lot of tough times. I figure if I can survive through that, I can survive through anything. 

Then known as Yan Man-Tat, Yan grew up in a village outside Guangzhou in Southern China. His father died when he was five, leaving Martin to take care of his younger brother while his mother tended to the store. She wouldn't return home until late at night, so young Martin prepped dinner by chopping vegetables, honing his knife skills night after night.

Life became so dire that at age 13, at his mother's urging, Yan effectively defected from mainland China. He concocted a story about picking up his father's inheritance from a relative in Hong Kong. He crossed the border and stayed there for the next 12 years, cut off from his family.

In those days, you were so confused that you didn't think of it as your parents deserting you. When your parents say, "You don't have to come back," you just don't come back. I was so confused and young and innocent, I didn't think about it, because those times were pretty rough. There was nothing to eat. I was actually happy to get out. It was right before the Cultural Revolution. I was lucky. My younger brother was really young and had to walk from Guangzhou to Beijing; he marched for four months. All these Red Guards were running around and destroying China, so all my life I always felt fortunate that I escaped. The Cultural Revolution destroyed a lot of young minds. It pulled China back 50 years.

When you leave your home when you're young, you really mature and grow up faster. You get thrown into a situation that is not in your control. But the way I look at it, it's not like I had a good job, was making good money, and I lost the job. That is very hard to take. But when you begin with nothing, and then you have a little bit, you're very happy.

Today, a lot of my colleagues and other celebrity chefs, I guarantee they're doing a lot better than me. Emeril probably makes a hundred times more than I do, because chefs like him are surrounded by people with more business acumen. They're more business-minded. But I don't need to compare myself to them. I compare what I make in one day when I do a presentation or a television program to what farmers in China make over 18 to 20 years. It's not fair.

A few years ago, I met with all of my elementary school classmates and neighboring kids I grew up with. They still have nothing. They cannot even comprehend what I have. It's very abstract. I didn't talk about what I've done, it just makes them feel bad. They cannot even dream about life in America, they cannot relate to it. They had such a harsh life. They aged more than I had. We were talking about the old days, and they felt that their life was a total waste. They never had a chance to go to college because of the Cultural Revolution. They complained a lot, because they felt they were deprived of opportunities. After that trip, I realized how lucky I was. I left at the right time.

Martin and Susan Yan live on a breezy hillside in San Mateo, 10 minutes south of San Francisco International Airport. They have twin sons, Devin and Colin, who are now entering their junior year in college.

The Yan home measures 5,400 square feet with six rooms and a three-door garage. For a television icon with shows airing in 60 countries, it's a modest home—not Nigella Lawson-lavish, but comfortable.

In his kitchen, Yan readies a taste test for his forthcoming multi-grain frozen fried-rice line. His friend and food consultant Alfred Cheung microwaves four plastic bags and sets each in its own paper bowl. Some contain carrots, corn, and edamame, others raisins and goji berries.

If I do not like something myself, I would not even bother to continue developing it. It has to go past me first. First I have to feel good about what I sell, what I have designed.

Then when you do research, you find what people what: something healthy, less salt, less oil. That's the priority. Even though I have no problem with MSG, I don't use it. It's a marketing thing. You don't want to waste time and money fighting it. Same thing about goose liver. Everyday we slaughter animals. And now you cannot sell foie gras, because our animal rights friends say it's cruel. What can you do as a chef? We have to go with the flow. People ask for natural, healthy products. So we don't use chemicals, additives, MSG. We try to use as much natural flavoring as we can.

Here's an example: People hardly use raisins or goji berries in fried rice. There's no reason why you cannot use something people don't use. Fried rice is fried rice. There's no such thing as traditional fried rice. Look at the menu of a typical chop-suey restaurant. You can have vegetarian fried rice. You have egg-white dried-scallop fried rice. You can have Yangzhou fried rice. They're all fried rice. There's no such thing as traditional. The way they fry rice in Northern China is a little different from Southern China. Ask a Sichuan chef to fry rice and they'll add chili. In China, there is no one standard recipe, unlike with something like a traditional eggs Benedict. And even a chef cooking eggs Benedict can create new sauces, new flavor profiles. So in a true sense, what defines tradition is how you execute a dish. A Chinese chef can use any ingredient. If they go to Peru, they have to use ingredients from Peru. If you go to Cuba, you've got to use ingredients from Cuba, but you're still basically doing a Chinese dish.

The world headquarters of Yan Can Cook Inc. is located near Yan's home in a drab business park along a freeway. It looks like the bedroom of Martin Yan's No. 1 Superfan. On the walls are stills from TV appearances on Good Morning America and Emeril Live. There's Yan hobnobbing with Bill Cosby and Jay Leno. Above a cabinet are instant-noodle packets decorated with Yan's face.

I noticed a promo poster for the film Love Knows No Bound—a Singaporean made-for-TV movie from 1995 in which Yan plays master chef King Kong. He's caught in a love triangle between a divorcee named Xinhui and Hong Jie, a bad boy who owes money to bookies. Chef King Kong possesses otherworldly culinary abilities. In a pivotal scene, he produces a single flame from his fingers that transforms into a giant crab-shaped conflagration.

Before he moved to San Francisco in 1982 and produced Yan Can Cook for public broadcaster KQED, Yan's cooking show aired on Canadian television for three years. We cued up an episode from 1981. The show is either forty years ahead of its time, or very Canadian in its sensibilities.

A 30-year-old Martin Yan walks through a curtain with his assistant Tammy Wong, who's wearing an ornate Qing Dynasty-era satin dress. They bow deeply. He hits a gong.

Yan's voice was two octaves higher back then, which made his hammy jokes hammier: "Welcome to the best Chinese cooking show in this particular time slot!"

I love this business. It's been a beautiful rollercoaster for me. It's given me the opportunity to open my mind and my heart. Professionally and personally, I have met people I truly respect, and I've learned to appreciate everybody's talent. When you work with people who are really masters but are still humble, you are influenced; you learn from them.

I learn to be appreciative. I learn to be contented. I think basic simple philosophy can really serve one person really well. It doesn't take too much to be happy. The problem is when you live in a highly commercial, highly competitive society.

Because of my job, I have had the opportunity not many Chinese people have. I have the opportunity to travel around, I've seen people with exceptional skill, and I learn things that I don't know how to do. I work with chefs and home chefs. I have the opportunity to work with top chefs from around the world, and every one of them gave me inspiration. And most of them are nice.

Yan is venturing on a new restaurant project. It's called M.Y. China, located at the Westfield San Francisco Centre. He describes it as traditional Chinese served in a contemporary setting, with an emphasis on theatrics.

On our last night together, Yan takes me to Koi Palace in Daly City, where we sample dishes still in the developmental stages—hot and sour soup with shredded tofu noodles, a trio of dumplings including a caviar-topped xiao long bao. Some dishes are more aspirational than functional, like the frenched lamb chop with red wine-poached Asian pear, its sauce dotted on plate in artful equidistance. Yan, taking pictures with his iPhone, suggests the poached pear was overkill.

By night's end, I had sat through a two-hour advertisement for M.Y. China. They've stuffed me into acquiescence. Further selling wasn't necessary, but Yan goes for the kill.

Enter Tony Wu with a ball of dough. He stands stage center; the room turns silent. Wu stretches the dough like an unfolding accordion and twists into a spinning braid. He whips the noodle ball behind his shoulders, across his back and flings it towards his audience. Now he's singing in Mandarin and dancing with the dough, like Gene Kelly with a broom. I watch with jaws dangling.

But he's not done.

An assistant now blindfolds chef Wu. He proceeds to turn a single rope of noodle into two, then four and eight and exponentially until he produces, give or take, 1,024 strands. He invites me to stroke it—it feels soft, like the top of a baby's head.

You can tell Yan is mentally taking notes. He walks over to Wu to debrief. Now he's talking with his hands again, pointing with index finger for emphasis. Yan offers Wu scripting suggestions:

"I want you to tell them, 'Today, I am so happy to welcome you to witness 5,000 years of culinary history and tradition. I am a magician. I will turn a piece of dough into thousands of strands in 90 seconds.' I want you to say, 'I think I can do it and you can not. I have never attempted this myself, but I will do it blindfolded just today, for you!' Again, engage people. Let's incorporate the art of dancing, the art of Kung Fu into the art of noodle making."

Yan now shows Wu the moves he wants performed. Yan holds an imaginary dough ball to his right, and swings his arm in an arc to the left. And back to the right. He's on bended knees and spins around in a full circle. And back in the other direction. Yan wants more flair. More audaciousness. More razzmatazz. He wants to turn this into the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. And therein lies Yan's ethos: If you want your students to absorb what they're taught, you grab their attention by the neck and throttle wildly.