2022 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Martin Yan
Honoring the chef's legacy in Chinese American cookingSarah Maiellano
May 25, 2022
The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to an individual whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, or think about food in America. Below, we spoke to our 2022 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award winner Martin Yan about his four-decade-long career of bringing the joy of Chinese cooking to America.
In the early 1970s, the U.S. only had a few thousand Chinese restaurants. Today, there are more than 50,000 that explore the diversity of China’s regional cuisines and specialties, from Peking duck to spicy hot pot to dim sum, and beyond. 2022 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Martin Yan has been at the forefront of this delicious change for the last half-century, through his award-winning public television cooking show, his library of 30 cookbooks, and his life-long commitment to culinary education.
Growing up during the Great Chinese Famine in the late 50s and early 60s, Yan's earliest memories of food include rationing and scarcity. Because of these early experiences, his mother urged him to move from his homeland, Guangzhou, China, to find stability. “My mother always reminded me to be close to food, to work in jobs where food was plentiful,” Yan said. At 13, Yan moved to Hong Kong to work in his uncle’s restaurant. After finishing high school, he moved to Alberta, Canada to further his studies while cooking in several Chinese restaurants along the way.
In the mid-1970s, Yan moved from frigid Canada to sunny California. While a student at the University of California, Davis—where he earned both a bachelor's and master’s degree in food science—Yan traded his low-paying restaurant jobs to become a cooking teacher through the UC Davis extension program. In 1978, while helping a friend open a restaurant, he caught the attention of a local television producer who liked his style. The producer asked Yan if he wanted to sub in to be a guest chef for a cooking segment on a weekly talk show. Though he had zero on-camera experience, he winged it and made a few familiar favorites: beef and broccoli and egg foo young. Thanks to his vibrant personality, he was asked to come back and was eventually offered a full-time job to host a daily cooking show.
Yan remembers his friends discouraging him: “Martin, don’t waste your time, nobody has any interest in Chinese cooking.” But Yan was committed to demystifying the cuisine, believing that food was the best way to bring people together.
He was right. He went on to make 520 episodes of his first show, Yan Can, in Calgary, and later launched his public television show, Yan Can Cook, in 1982 at KQED in San Francisco. After borrowing $3,000 from each of his roommates, he also published his first cookbook in the same year, Chinese Recipes—the first of what would become a collection of over 30 cookbooks.
Yan estimates that he has cooked close to 10,000 dishes over the course of 3,500 episodes of Yan Can Cook, which has been broadcast to more than 50 countries (which also won a few James Beard Awards along the way). While filming, he shows off his skills—like breaking down a chicken in 18 seconds—and cooking quick, accessible recipes that everybody can make at home, following his motto: “If Yan can cook, so can you!”
“Today, there are probably over 10,000 food and travel shows on TV worldwide. To stay competitive, you have to engage and captivate the audience,” he explains.
While Yan won’t take credit for the explosion of interest in Asian food and cooking, he hopes his contributions have made a difference. “I hope that I’ve made a little dent to help introduce Chinese and Asian cuisine to the public,” he says.
As a recipient of the 2022 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, Yan is dedicating his award to “the millions of hard-working culinary professionals, particularly Chinese chefs who work 12- to 14-hour days, working behind hot stoves, day in and day out.”
Moving forward, Yan plans to continue to travel the world—cooking, filming, and always learning. “I’ve been winging it for close to half a century, and I’m still having fun.”
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Sarah Maiellano is an independent journalist based in Philadelphia. She also co-hosts the podcast Delicious City Philly. Find more of her work at sarahmaiellano.com and follow her on Instagram at @sarahmaiellano.