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Article featured in Beijing This Month, January 2006
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No Doubt about It Yan Can Cook in Beijing

By Daragh Moller

Any performer knows: "The show must go on," and master chef Martin Yan of the well-known US cooking show "Yan Can Cook" is nothing if not a performer.

Despite blustery winter winds and freezing cold on a special set erected outside the Goose "N" Duck restaurant in northeastern Beijing in December, the show did go on as Yan and four noted local chefs taped Christmas and New Year's specials for a 52-part show that will be broadcast in Chinese in Beijing and across China in 2006. Parts of the show may be shown later in the United States.

Yan, who is much taller in person than he appears on television (unlike many other "stars"), is a distinguished food writer, chef and veteran television-show host whose face is familiar to millions of Americans. He spoke with BTM during breaks in taping, while warming up for the next round of taping, before he bounded back onto his set and began barking directions.

"We need butter!" yelled Yan politely at his assistant Stephanie. She smiled back and headed off in search of butter.

"This is for the Christmas celebration," said Yan, his trademark smile lighting up his face.

"Its a little bit cold but this is what it is all about.  Happiness brings happiness!" he said bubbling over with enthusiasm.

Actually, it was bitterly cold. Behind Yan, on the set, the four flags of China, Canada, the United States and Australia billowed in the freezing wind.

"The butter's coming, right?" he asked again. Someone walking towards him shook their head.

In front of a live audience, his relaxed, hands-on-style-speaking in English one minute, translating to Chinese the next-is instantly engaging. He appears unstoppable, small but bountiful, genuine, likeable.

"I really can't claim to be a great chef" Yan has said more than once.

But nothing seems further from the truth. The list of his credits is endless. Since his career began in the late 1970s he has recorded more than 2,000 TV programmes and has written more than 26 cookbooks. He has received award after award including, most recently, the California Chef of the Year award in 2002 and the Grand Master and the Chinese Cuisine in 2004. Apart from his "day job," the list of his extra-curricular activities is equally astonishing. He lectures at the California Culinary Academy and is a visiting lecturer at universities across the State of California throughout the year. He also is an active member of prestigious cooking associations around the world.

Taking the same path well worn by the many Chinese people who emigrated to the United States before him, Yan was with his family when they left the Chinese mainland from Guangzhou, Guangdong Province-where he was born-stopping first in Hong Kong. But it wasn't until he moved to the United States in the early 70s that Yan truly came into his element.

Yan's TV career in the United States began in 1978 with "Yan Can Cook," a soon to be very popular Chinese cooking programme-often featured on public television stations-that developed into a part-cultural education programme, part-travelogue that continues to this day.

It was no accident that Yan ended up cooking on TV. The young Yan knew where he was going. He also knew where he wanted to take his love of food, cooking and Chinese culture.

Working from the ground up, Yan's culinary training began at age 13 as a chef in a popular Hong Kong restaurant. He soon moved on to bigger and better things, getting more experience and further training at Hong Kong's Overseas Institute of Cookery. With his sights set on faraway shores, Yan soon moved to sunny California where he attended The University of California and obtained a master's degree in Food Science. 

But it was a mixture of irrepressible energy and his dynamic, sunny personality that made the natural entertainer Yan a sure winner on American TV. No sooner had "Yan Can Cook" begun than it generated a devoted following whose loyalty to Yan remains strong to this day.

And if ever a truer set of words have ever been spoken... "No! You don't understand…I have been watching this guy since I was 8 years old-this is a really big deal," said chef Dan Segall of the Hilton Beijing, as he waited to go on set.

Segall, who can most often be found at the Hilton's Louisiana restaurant, was one of four guest chefs joining Yan on the Goose "N" Duck set for the night's taping. They were joined by Nolan Ledarney, executive chef of the Embassy of Canada to Beijing; Andrew McKee, chef de cuisine at the China World Hotel's Aria Restaurant and Stuart Newbigging, executive sous chef at The Peninsula Palace Beijing, widely considered as some of the best chefs in the city.

"Well...while we are waiting for the butter, let's start shooting," said Yan, hopping up and down, clapping his hands together loudly. The outdoor heaters still did not work and the tip of chef Dan's turned a rosy red in the cold.

Skilled in four dialects of Chinese, Yan knows he can make himself understood in China. He is noticeably at ease despite being surrounded by technical crewmen, assistants, the audience, onlookers, well-wishers and journalists, switching from language to language, from culture to culture, topic to topic.

At last, with two near-frozen chefs on either side of him, Yan gets the ball rolling. As he engages in his furious, trademark staccato chopping of ingredients, steam rises from a sizzling wok and Yan talks animatedly to the audience, explaining what's happening and what's it all about directly to camera.

As taping wound down, Yan was just getting wound up: "Come on! Let's party. "Xīnnián kuàilè!" he shouts in Chinese. "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!"

And in the time-honoured tradition of taped TV, someone finally delivered the butter.


SIDEBAR: YAN CAN COOK Quick and Easy BTM RECIPE: BTM asked Martin Yan to recommend a quick and easy New Year's dish for readers.

"It would have to be Peking duck, right? Yan Style!" said Yan.

"Stuff a duck with Christmas stuffing and roast it. Serve with glutinous rice and roasted Chinese sausage. But don't forget to marinate the duck in hoisin sauce. Serve with pasta and pancakes. Hao chi! Delicious!" said Yan.