Yan hungry for more

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 February, 2008, 12:00am

As all eyes are on China in the run up to this summer's Beijing Olympics. Celebrity chef Martin Yan is jumping on the bandwagon to flex his muscles in possibly the world's largest tourism market.

Yan (left) will open Chef Martin Yan's Culinary Arts Centre at the Window of the World theme park in Shenzhen in March, providing expert and leisure cooking classes and culinary tours on the mainland. The centre also includes a restaurant named SensAsian.

'China has become a centre for trade, tourism and manufacturing, and it's the perfect time to do this project now,' said Yan. 'By 2010, China will be the country that has the most number of tourists. When you visit a country, you definitely want to taste the local delicacies. The centre can serve as a platform for tourists to have an inspiring culinary and cultural experience.'

The Guangdong-born Chinese-American, who presents the popular TV cooking show Yan Can Cook, has been an author and consultant for restaurants, hotels and food companies for more than 20 years. He says he now sees his role as more of a cultural ambassador with a conscience than merely a celebrity chef.

'I want people to respect me not just as an individual but as Chinese,' said Yan, who has been doing charity work and giving talks to Chinese students around the world. 'The portraits of Chinese people in Hollywood are often men with ponytails or triad members. These are roles I would never take on. Now I have the chance to do what I love most, which is introducing Chinese delicacies to the world, and by doing so earning respect for Chinese people.'

Working in America for years has taught him to be self-reliant, earning respect from US audiences in a confident manner - so confident that he even starred alongside Sylvia Chang Ai-chia as the male lead in the family comedy Rice Rhapsody three years ago.

'I left home when I was young, and I needed to have the courage to face reality and the ability to solve problems on my own to survive,' said Yan, who left China in the 1960s as a teenager before the Cultural Revolution to work in a restaurant in Mong Kok in Hong Kong before moving to the US and earning a master's degree in food science. 'If you don't have confidence, you cannot survive in a foreign country because more or less there will always be discrimination, be it obvious or subtle. You cannot avoid racial discrimination because it's everywhere.'

He says that while he would never forget that he is Chinese, he works flexibly in the mode of a global citizen, blending the strengths of western and Chinese cultures. 'I speak Mandarin, Cantonese and English, depending on the situation,' he said.

'Often, Chinese people have a disadvantage when working in the west because they cling to their traditions, some of which are not necessarily good. But I retain the good qualities and drop the weaknesses of my culture.'

'Now I do things in both western and Chinese ways. Otherwise as a Chinese, hosting the longest-running cooking programme in US mainstream media, for more than 26 years, how could I survive if I can't adapt to the environment?'

Yan says he feels nervous but excited returning to the mainland for business, his first project in China for years. After all, this is where he fell in love with cooking.

'My father passed away when I was a kid and my mother didn't remarry. It was tough then but my mother nurtured me and my younger brother. She is very creative in cooking, creating the most with the fewest ingredients,' said Yan.

'I am inspired by her.'