Chef Profile: Martin Yan
Mention Martin Yan to any chef and you’re likely to hear this common refrain: 18 seconds. That’s the mind-blowing time it takes him to debone a whole chicken, a task made famous on his longtime PBS show Yan Can Cook.
Though he estimates performing the shtick roughly 50,000 times in his 34-year career (sometimes three times per day), it’s hardly the first thing he would impart to a culinary student.
“Listen, no one needs to debone a chicken in 18 seconds,” Yan says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 35 seconds or a minute and a half. It’s just entertainment.”
In fact, he recently made his way back to the kitchen with M.Y. China, his latest Chinese restaurant that opened in December. Entertainment is only a slice of Yan’s legendary career. Working his way through apprenticeships from age 13, he rose to fame as a master chef and educator.
Yan has rolled with—and mastered—every punch the industry has thrown. Consider his accolades: nearly 3,500 television appearances, 30 cookbooks, a handful of restaurants and product lines, and the development of The Martin Yan Culinary Arts Center in Shenzhen, China. Now 64, he shows no signs of slowing down.
"Don't try to be Bobby Flay, Emeril or Rachael Ray. There's only one (of them) so be yourself."
Located in San Francisco, the Chinese cuisine restaurant is the latest incarnation of Yan’s ever-evolving career. “You can always reinvent yourself—it’s neverending,” says Yan, whose other restaurants include Yan Can Asian Bistro and the former SensAsian. “As long as I keep a sense of curiosity and passion and follow my instinct, this is how you sustain yourself in any profession.”
Yan’s television career began in 1979, a time when only two other cooking programs were on the air: Graham Kerr’s The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child’s The French Chef. As celebrity chefs proliferated, Yan’s persona and brand evolved, from using entertainment to expose Americans to Chinese cuisine to a more serious investigation of authenticity through travel. Surprisingly, he’s managed to do it all without the aid of a PR machine. “I never purposefully, systematically build a brand,” Yan says. “I just do it and have fun. There’s more freedom to do what I want to do.”
He maintains firm control of his ventures and argues the freedom lets him guide his own path. By handling his own affairs, he is more confident about the challenges as they come. “What I’ve learned since getting involved with this business is that oftentimes things don’t turn out the way that you like,” he says. “So, always be prepared, be patient and look at the bright side.”
One of his most recent challenges involved capturing the current scene abroad—hand-pulled noodles, dim sum and wok-fired entrées—and training a foreign staff to adapt to American cultural norms. As a man of the camera, Yan wanted his new restaurant to feature an open kitchen for presentation. Most Chinese restaurants stay away from an open kitchen concept, he says, and have their wok stations facing a wall.
“When you face the wall, you never have to look happy or smile,” he says. “Here, you have to look like you enjoy your work. The body language of wok cooking with the flame is just like watching fireworks, so if you do not have an open kitchen, you’re really losing the excitement.”
But what Yan wants, Yan gets. So much so that even a six-month construction setback and logistical issues couldn’t stop him from opening his dream restaurant. Though he has faced challenges with every new venture—whether it’s becoming a television chef, author, educator or restaurateur—he says the key to his success was remaining true to himself and his vision. He advises young chefs to not copy personalities, but to find their own strengths, act from their gut and create their own brand.