Long before there were cooking channels and numerous cooking shows available for viewing during all hours of the day, there were only three chefs on television: Julia Child, Graham Kerr (The Galloping Gourmet) and Martin Yan. I watched them all, learning techniques and recipes, but I was drawn to Chef Martin Yan’s show “Yan Can Cook.” He brought Cantonese cooking techniques and recipes into home kitchens and radiated a certain warmth and sense of humor. And, of course, my interest in Yan’s show was further amplified because Uncle Richard had met him several times.
They met infrequently through the years at various restaurant/chef conventions and award banquets. Whenever Yan or his show was mentioned, Uncle Richard regaled us with a tale or two derived from their conversations. I never knew how well they knew each other. Our families are from the same region of China (Guangzhou), but whether they became good friends or were just friendly acquaintances I was never sure.
So, it was my great delight last month when I had the opportunity to meet Martin Yan. I attended an event presented by Valley PBS headlined by the chef himself. The fun evening featured food products grown and produced locally, and cooked by local chefs in a competition and promoted Yan’s new program, “Yan Can Cook: Spice Kingdom,” a series taking a comprehensive look at the food and spices that shaped the history and culture of Western China.
When I was introduced to Yan, I mentioned that I was from Hanford. He said that there was an “important chef who had a famous restaurant from Hanford.” I replied that my family once had a restaurant called the Imperial Dynasty in Hanford’s Chinatown and that my Uncle Richard was the chef. For the next five minutes, Yan’s mantra to me was, “Your uncle created a tremendous brand and legacy. Don’t lose it. Keep your legacy.” I won’t ever forget his words nor the sweet kindness he extended to Mom when they were introduced.
Part of the evening’s program included presentations by Yan of his famous knife skills – chopping rapidly and precisely: a roll of paper towels, garlic, vegetables and carving a chicken in eighteen seconds, and ended with a quick stir-fry. During these presentations Yan said several things that touched me deeply, making me more than a little sentimental. Throughout his chopping and cutting, Yan interjected his instructions with these sentences: “I learned how to cut from Richard Wing of Hanford.” “Everything I learned is from Richard Wing from Hanford.” “A great chef from Hanford taught me this.” “Richard Wing has been cooking like this for 242 years in China Alley, I’ve only been cooking for 144.”
It was wonderful to hear Martin Yan play tribute to Uncle Richard. By the time he mentioned him the third or fourth time I had become weepy – missing those who were no longer here, missing the times gone by, remembering my legacy.
As I watched Yan expertly wield his famous cleaver, I thought it was an interesting coincidence that knife skills also changed Uncle Richard’s life. Uncle Richard began his basic training at Camp Roberts in 1944 but never finished as he collapsed midway through a 25-mile hike. It was discovered that he had a heart murmur, and so he was put on “limited service.” Expecting to get an honorable discharge after six months, he was put on temporary KP duty.
The mess sergeant sent Uncle Richard to learn meat carving. Each mess hall processed approximately seventy pounds of meat. One of the other cooks boasted that he could cut sixty slices of bread from a stale loaf. Uncle Richard told his sergeant that he could easily double that many slices. A contest ensued. The other cook cut sixty-six slices from a stale loaf of bread, Uncle Richard cut one hundred and forty-four slices.
Uncle Richard joined four other Chinese cooks for a Chinese midnight snack, using some of the leftover meat. The officers heard of this late-night nosh and soon joined them. Shortly thereafter, Uncle Richard was summoned to a meeting where he was told that he would be leaving Camp Roberts in the morning and flying to Washington, D.C. Uncle Richard had no idea what was going on and was stunned from the minute he de-boarded the plane. An officer introduced him to General and Mrs. George Marshall and said he was to be their personal chef. And so it began, the next chapter in Uncle Richard’s story.
As my evening winded down, I walked over to Yan to thank him for the evening and for remembering Uncle Richard. He motioned for me to take some of the leftover fruits and vegetables that weren’t used during his demonstration or the competition. He said, “These fruits and vegetables from this Valley are as much about your legacy as China Alley. Be sure you make use of both.”
I will, Chef Yan, I will, I will. And, indeed I have and will continue to do so.
This week I’m sharing a recipe from Martin Yan’s cookbook, “Martin Yan Quick and Easy.” He suggests using a spice grinder to turn green tea leaves into a fine powder. I used Dragonwell, the most popular green tea in China. Next time I will try China Jasmine tea in the recipe. Yan’s recipe calls for macadamia nuts, but I swapped them out with pistachios because food from this Valley is our legacy.