Yan joins Bay Area food movers and shakers for Acterra Holiday reFresh event

Chef Martin Yan
Acclaimed chef, culinary consultant and TV personality Martin Yan of San Mateo is one of the featured Bay Area food movers and shakers participating in Acterra’s Holiday reFresh program, demoing favorite plant-based dishes. (Photo courtesy of Yan Can Cook)

I’m waiting on a feature-length biopic movie of legendary chef Martin Yan (filmmaker friends, take note!), but until that gets produced, I’m glued to a YouTube clip. Almost as impressive as Yan’s deboning a chicken in 18 seconds, this particular clip leaves me on the edge of my seat: It cuts just as Master Chef Yan starts to cook one of his favorite dishes in a wok, not over a volcanic gas-fueled flame, but on an induction cooktop. “You get all the responsiveness of cooking with gas, but it’s better for you and the environment,” Yan tells the camera. And I want to know — “How does this possibly work?” 

That’s the point of this cliffhanger. I’m going to have to tune into an upcoming cooking demonstration to see what happens next. This teaser leads up to a Nov. 7 event that features Yan of Yan Can Cook and other acclaimed Bay Area food movers and shakers, including Crystal Wahpepah of Wahpepah’s Kitchen, Kenny Annis of Sky Cafe, Shruti Boddu of Shru’s Kitchen and Alicia Casas of Jaguar Baker. They’ll all demo some of their favorite plant-based dishes during the Holiday reFresh event sponsored by Acterra, a Palo Alto nonprofit dedicated to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. A couple of steps to that include reducing meat production and consumption (eat more plants!), as well as reducing fossil fuel use (use renewable resources!).

Acterra’s Robbie Brown weighed in in a prepared statement: “Bringing people together around the table, especially over the holidays, opens up new conversations about how we fuel our bodies each day, and how small incremental changes add up to a much greater impact. We hope our virtual cooking event will show people how fun and creative plant-based cooking can be, with the benefits of better health and a cleaner environment.”

So I want to know, can you get that distinctive caramelizing wok hei effect on an induction cooktop? As some local energy code changes took effect a year ago requiring use of all electric in new builds, is investing in an induction cooktop feasible and desirable for restaurateurs and home cooks, particularly those that have a tradition of using fuels like gas or wood? It’s a dream to have the opportunity to discuss these questions with Yan as a chef, culinary consultant, food scientist and TV personality.

In a more than 40-year career, Yan has connected with audiences across the world. With thousands of cooking show episodes, dozens of cookbooks, a list of awards (including James Beard awards, an Emmy Award and more) and influential restaurants, he’s played a pivotal role in shaping the contemporary culinary landscape. 

Yan also fulfills a critical role as a public educator. In addition to teaching at culinary institutions and consulting, Yan has been a mainstay in home cooks’ living rooms since 1978 with “Yan Can Cook.” It first aired in Canada, and then in the U.S. on PBS in 1982 as one of just three cooking programs, presenting one of the first Asian ones. 

So thanks to Yan for the opportunity to learn from his point of view, in conversation with the Peninsula Foodist. Be sure to tune in for the cooking demonstration too. You can register at bit.ly/acterra-nov7.

Rainbow vegetables over a noodle pancake
“Noodles are long, so it’s a symbol of long life, longevity — so we want to promote the longevity of Earth.” Chef Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook features a dish of rainbow vegetables over a noodle pancake as part of Acterra’s Holiday reFresh program. Courtesy Yan Can Cook.

Peninsula Foodist: Your work has opened up the world of Chinese cooking for so many, including myself. And you shaped the conversation about the art of cooking overall. I’m thinking about the call, “If Yan can cook, so can you,” and that’s given me the confidence that I can indeed cook.

Martin Yan: You are too kind … In the past, we do it on the television screen. And then later on, the live events all over the world, filming. But that takes a lot of time. And then you have to do on-location scouting, just like a movie. To do a show like that, it takes a lot of money, it takes a lot of time, a lot of headaches, a lot of logistics.  

In the past, I traveled all around the world to bring the best of food and culture and travel and heritage from different parts of the world to the U.S. audience. That was the same show that was broadcast to 60 countries around the world.

With these kinds of (virtual) events, once we’ve recorded, we can put it back in all kinds of social media platforms.

Now, I just sit and stand in the comfort of my own kitchen in the Bay Area (in San Mateo), and I can reach people around the world. 

Foodist: And it sounds like the Acterra Holiday reFresh event is one of those. I’m particularly interested in what’s coming up with the event, and the idea of using an induction cooktop.

Yan: For everybody, including this G-20 summit, one of the most important subject matter is global warming and climate change. The traditional cooking method is in the early days wood, and later on is charcoal and mesquite and coal. Later on, it was electricity. But all of these you need to use fossil fuel to generate the power. 

Then induction on the other hand, it helps to alleviate some of these problems, because you have zero emissions and very minimal waste of energy. Because an induction burner has a magnetic field, it only heats up where contact is, and around it is cool — so you don’t waste energy.

When you use wood fire, when you use gas, a lot of radiant heat, you use a lot of energy.

About eight to 10 years ago, I worked with an induction cooktop manufacturer. Nowadays, you go to all the cruise ships, you go to all the five-star hotels, they have induction. It’s nothing new, it’s been around a long, long time. 

But the thing is, sometimes an induction burner is more expensive, so it was never really as popular. Nowadays, most housing (and building) projects, they are starting induction burners. It’s all induction cooking. The government is doing it, and the whole world is watching because of global warming and climate change.

Foodist: I remember about a year ago, hearing about this especially in San Gabriel Valley around Los Angeles. For restaurants, it sounded like there was some concern, both for getting wok hei and that really hot cooktop to get the texture and the taste, and also the cost to switch out, especially for smaller restaurants. How do you think about balancing all these concerns? 

Yan: First of all, I think there’s a misconception. A lot of people are resistant. With a gas burner, you can see the flame. You can hear the noise when you cook. With an induction burner, you cannot hear, you cannot see. Mentally and psychologically, you might say, “Hey, it’s not heating.” But theoretically, scientifically and technically, an induction burner is not only efficient and energy-saving, but it’s a lot more powerful than a lot of people think. 

That’s why in Hong Kong and China, they’ve developed a wok induction unit that is round. In the old days, all the induction burners were flat for frying pans, but now they’ve developed a concave, bow-shaped induction burner so you can put a wok on top of it. It heats up a lot faster than gas and electric. A lot of people don’t realize that.

The only thing is aluminium will not work on an induction burner, but nowadays pots and pans in the market are induction cooktop applicable.

Foodist: The first part of that question was actually coming from my mom, so thank you, she’ll be glad to hear this.

Yan: Of course. Tell your mom to try to heat up the same amount of water. Turn it up to high with an induction cooktop and a gas cooktop. She’ll be very impressed, because with induction burners, the heat is instant.

Foodist: For home cooks or restaurants considering making the switch, do you have tips on offsetting the cost? Is this an upfront investment?

Yan: In the short run, an induction cooktop is much more expensive. But in the long run, if you believe you’re running your business in the long haul, not one or two years, then you save a lot of energy. That means your gas bill, your electric bill, is a lot less. 

Not only that, but the heat of the kitchen, you don’t waste as much energy, because you don’t have to turn on a huge fan and air conditioning. 

All in all, it’s a lot cleaner energy, and more controllable.

But of course, the drawback is for smaller business the cost. It’s probably a bit of a burden for the initial investment. I know that is pretty true.

Foodist: Are there ways that you have to adjust your cooking technique?

Yan: You just have to get used to it. I’ll give you an example: In the old days, in the burner they used wood chips to heat it up, and you constantly have to add wood to balance it out. You keep adjusting, because it’s not consistent.

And then (it was) gas. But gas, it’s a natural resource, so eventually that will be depleted, that will be gone. 

So for future, that’s why you have renewable energy. An induction burner, all you need is electricity. That can be generated by wind, by solar. So that’s why I personally believe renewable energy is the future, and induction cooking is part of the equation.

Foodist: Is there still a place for heritage practices like cooking with wood and meat? I think of the Chinese character for “home” (家), which has a pig at its center, and I think of that as being central to a lot of home life.

Yan: Part of the solution is cutting down consumption of meat … With the population explosion, there’s a loss of arable lands. You drive around (Highway) 101, you drive around (Interstate) 5, you drive on 99 or 80 … I went to UC Davis, I remember everything is farmland. Now you look around, there’s a lot of high rises, a lot of development, a lot of housing. 

Eventually you have to find a way to do it. The world is changing, and we have to adapt to it. 

Talking about plant-based products — the Asians were practicing this a long, long time, because meat is very precious in many parts of the world.

Personally … I eat a lot of vegetables. In the entire meal, meat is basically used as a flavoring component, to give texture and flavor. 

Even now, when I go to a steakhouse, me and my wife always order a small steak and we share. I never finish 12 ounces.

Foodist: When my grandma first came from Guangdong area, she didn’t eat beef at all, until her neighbor in Wyoming said, “This is an American delicacy. You have to eat it.” So she’d get a steak for the whole family and then she’d cut it up and serve it with their vegetables over rice.

Yan: In Chinese cooking, you have celery, you have Napa cabbage, you have gailan — all these are loaded with a lot of nutrients and trace minerals and fiber.   

You go to a lot of restaurants, and the vegetable is the sidekick. They are not main players, they are supporting cast. You order a steak, and maybe you pick a side vegetable … and it’s overcooked.

But in a good Chinese dish, in a good Asian dish, there are four elements: One is appearance. If you cook the vegetable to death, you lose the color, you lose the texture, you lose the nutrients. They look dead. The color (should be) vibrant. Secondly is aroma. Stir-fry uses a high temperature for a short time, very, very quick. They don’t destroy much nutrients. And then you get the aroma — the wok hei — the breath of the wok. 

And then, the taste. When you cook vegetables along with meat, the umami flavor permeates and flavors the vegetables.

And then, texture contrast. When you bite into something, you gotta have texture. 

So it’s appearance, aroma, taste and texture contrast.

Foodist: You can get all that with an induction cooktop?

Yan: You can get all that with an induction cooktop. You can toss the way you toss on top of a gas burner or an electric burner. (On induction,) you lift it up and it’s disconnected, and so it’s energy efficient. But as soon as you put it back, BOOM — it’s hot and bubbling again. It brings the boil again.

Foodist: Can I ask what dish you’ll be preparing for the event, a favorite plant-based dish?

Yan: I’m doing a vegetarian mushroom, assorted vegetable stir-fry with a stir-fry sauce over a noodle pancake.

I want to tell people it’s symbolic. Whenever you celebrate something, you always serve noodles. Noodles are long, so it’s a symbol of long life, longevity — so we want to promote the longevity of Earth. We want to promote the longevity of human, mankind — so we won’t be extinct, running out of natural resources.

And also it’s a celebration of life. That’s why noodles are always served for weddings and anniversaries and birthday parties.

It’s a symbol of long life, longevity and long lasting.

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