Cuisine played a central role in Martin Yan’s life from the day he was born in China to a restaurateur father and a mother who operated a grocery store. Though his father died when Yan was a toddler, the boy picked up cooking skills from watching his mother prepare meals at home. At her urging, Yan immigrated to Hong Kong in 1963 to escape Communist China, and while in Honk Kong, he worked in restaurants and studied at the Overseas Institute of Cookery. He eventually made his way to the U.S., where he earned a master’s in food science at the University of California Davis, teaching cooking to pay for his degree.
In 1978 he appeared on a talk show on which he was to prepare a meal — though it didn’t quite work out that way. Known for being a bit chatty and loving to share stories, he didn’t finish cooking the dish but managed to tell viewers he could teach them how to cook and asked them to call the station to get him hired. And thus Yan Can Cook, So Can You was born. Featuring what Yan called “nouvelle Chinese” dishes, it was one of the few ethnic food shows on national TV. By 1990 it was broadcast by 250 stations across the U.S. and in 20 countries. Yan has won two James Beard Awards — one for his show and one for his food journalism — as well as an Emmy, and he has published more than 25 books. Much to his delight, he was instrumental in bringing Chinese cuisine to people the world over. “When I was a cooking teacher in the 70s, Chinese ingredients were hard to come by,” he once wrote in Life magazine. “The first time I saw Chinese bean sprouts in Texas, it nearly brought me to tears.”
Next Dione Lucas