TAMPA — He hovered over the young man tapping out a saute pan of crisp fried noodle cake. He briefly zipped over to eagle-eye a whippersnapper in chef whites making delicate crosshatches on a bunch of calamari fillets. • Then he had a minute for me. Martin Yan has been the voice of Chinese food in America as long as I can remember. He was a gargantuan presence in San Francisco, where he still teaches, when I was in cooking school in the early 1990s. In fact, he once visited my class and tasted our wobbly offerings. Here it is, 36 years after he started saying things like "Yan can cook . . . and so can you!" and he's leading a demo last week at Publix Apron's Cooking School in Tampa. He's trim, he's dynamic and he has the million-mile frequent-flier card in his hoagie-thick wallet to show for his recent past.
Martin Yan, 61, travels 255 days a year, teaching cooking classes around the country and leading tour groups to his new Martin Yan Culinary Arts Center in the port city of Shenzhen, China. His classrooms have 16-wok cooktops, each with 125,000 BTUs of juice. Some of the pilgrims are professionals set on refining their knowledge of red cooking (a special kind of slow simmering) or fancy Imperial dishes, some are rank amateurs who don't know a bean sprout from a pea sprout.
I sat down with Yan for a few minutes before his demo to talk about Chinese food and his place in culinary history.
How has Chinese food in the United States changed in the past 30 years?
There are 66,000 Asian restaurants in the country, 52,000 of them Chinese. That's more than all of the fast-food restaurants put together. Thirty years ago, we were talking about spring rolls and sweet and sour pork. Now there are whole grocery store aisles devoted to Asian seasonings.
Okay, then how has Chinese food changed in China?
It's gotten a lot more sophisticated. Despite our economic downturn here, China will experience an 8 percent increase in GNP (the gross national product) this year. There's an unbelievable food and beverage scene: 5,000-seat restaurants with a kitchen on every floor.
You've written 30 cookbooks. Do you have a favorite?
My favorite is Martin Yan's Chinatowns (in which he visits Chinatowns around the world). Julia Child loved Chinese food — she'd lived in China for two years — so when we were together I'd take her out for Chinese. She loved dim sum. She wrote the foreword for that book.
Although you're a certified master chef, your claim to fame has been accessibility and humor. Do you see that as a key to your long-standing appeal?
Hmm, I've never considered myself as someone with a great sense of humor. But I will say that when you're excited, everyone's excited. I've been teaching people about Chinese food since I went to U.C. Davis to study science and nutrition. But in all that time I've never gained a pound — Asian foods are healthy, often with one portion of protein for every three portions of vegetables.
You've done more than 3,000 TV cooking shows. I remember you saying things like, "Don't stare at it, because it is not a starefry." Why is the wok your tool of choice?
The wok is rounded like a salad bowl, so things tumble easily in it without spilling out. And compared to a flat-bottomed pan, you need a lot less fuel for even cooking and a lot less oil for deep-frying.
Some say you're the father of Chinese cooking in this country. What do you say?
Nah, I'm not the father, just one of the old-timers. But I'm still here.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.