You first appeared on television in 1978. How did it all begin? “I was helping a friend open a Chinese restaurant in Calgary, Canada. A producer and TV station manager were regular customers. One day, they asked me to do a cooking demonstration, replacing someone else who was sick. I did one segment, then another, and they kept asking me back. The manager said I was totally different to anyone else. I was very personal. We did 130 shows per season. Nowadays, nobody does that. It aired five days a week for six months – but we filmed the 130 shows in 23 days. There were only two other [cooking programmes], The Galloping Gourmet, with Graham Kerr, and Julia Child’s The French Chef. Now, there are thousands of shows.”
How has awareness of Chinese cuisine increased in North America since Yan Can Cook started? “At the beginning, Chinese was just chop suey and chow mein. I remember supermarkets having only bean sprouts and bok choi for Asian vegetables. Now there are entire Asian sections. I don’t think it’s just because of Yan Can Cook, but perhaps our shows have influenced people’s appreciation. I guarantee that most people now have chopsticks, soy sauce and a wok in their kitchen.”
What’s this new show you’ve just done for the Asian Food Channel? “I have a show airing in December called Back to Basics. I ask chefs to explore basic techniques, seasonings and ingredients in a way that people can use at home.
Some people have accused you of exaggerating your accent. How do you respond to them? “I was born in Guangzhou and didn’t pick up English until I was 17. You can’t shed your accent, no matter how hard you try – just like Jacques Pepin can’t shake his French accent. On television, people pick on every little thing. My English will never be perfect. My Mandarin will never be perfect, either.” Do you consider yourself a celebrity chef? “I’m not in the entertainment business. That’s why you never see any news about Martin Yan. I always tell people, ‘I hope you like what I do. Whether I am famous or not, it doesn’t matter.’”
Tell us about your new restaurant in San Francisco, where you live. “It’s called MY China. We serve traditional Chinese food. I’ve hired all my chefs from China. We do hand-pulled noodles, knife-pared noodles and all kinds of noodles for demonstration.”