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The secret to celebrity chef Martin Yan’s home cooking? Deer manure

It is FAR from the glamorous sort of pursuit one might expect of an award-winning celebrity chef with an American television show and two billion viewers.

But for Martin Yan Man-tat, host of Yan Can Cook, gardening is a hobby that, literally, grounds him on home soil. It helps him balance a year-round globe-trotting schedule, which will soon take him filming in Korea and Chengdu (成都), and offers him some much-needed quiet time.

“Gardening is what I spend a lot of time on, cutting grass, trimming trees, all these keep me in tune with nature,” he says.

“Like hunting and fishing, gardening is a solitary job that allows me to think and reflect, undisturbed.”

It also helps with his culinary experiments. Yan has a master’s degree in food science and he keeps a herb garden and vegetable patch in addition to his backyard garden.

“I use deer manure as fertiliser to grow all kinds of herbs such as parsley and mint which I use in my home cooking,” he says, adding that, “Yes, I do cook at home, and use my cutlery everyday, pretty much like professional tennis players use rackets in their daily practice.”

The need for some quiet was impressed upon Yan by his wife, a “lady of few words”, and helps to balance the frenetic bursts of energy he needs for his television shows.

“I give 100 per cent of my energy at those shows, but that’s entertainment – I am performing. So once it goes off air, I give zero energy and go home as an ordinary cook,” says Yan, now based in San Francisco, but in Hong Kong to promote his new cook book The Taste of Nostalgia.

“I’m so ordinary that once I went to a post office, the staff there saw an expressionless me and started to worry and asked, ‘Chef Yan, are you OK?’” he laughs.

As a professional chef, Yan regards fitness as a top prerequisite not only to look good but also for discipline and stamina.

“I might not look it, but the pressure of working under the spotlight is enormous, and my show would not have lasted 36 years if my energy level had gone unchecked,” says Yan, 68.

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“I do my workout with a resistance band, just about 50 times in the morning and at night, and I travel with it and do my daily exercises in the hotel room,” he says, demonstrating different stretches.

“My weight has been 138 to 140 pounds for the past 30 years. I did gain a little weight at one point and it was 141.”

At the end of the day, he says, what matters most is the mindset.

“I always go by what my mother taught me just before I left Guangzhou for Hong Kong when I was 12 years old: that I should not go after fame and that there are mountains beyond mountains.

“I believe in a simple and pragmatic life, and I take pleasure in my work, or is it really work?,” he asks, quoting an old saying, “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”.

Contentment, he says, works against greed, which he sees as the root cause of many problems in Hong Kong at present.

“I spent my teenage years here and lived through some hard times such as water shortages and the 1967 riots. Those were my formative years and a sense of crisis got me to appreciate what I have. But I am afraid to say the new generation has none of that.”

He feels indebted to Hong Kong, where his career was launched at his uncle’s restaurant in Kowloon City, and recalls sleeping at the restaurant “over some wooden boards I would put together for the night”.

He can now afford much more comfortable accommodation, yet prefers not to be pampered.

“I carry my own luggage and check into not five-star but just ordinary hotels for places to sleep,” he says, adding he’d rather give the money to charity.

QA: Martin Yan

Forgoing such luxuries seems barely a hardship for someone who can recall surviving San Francisco’s magnitude 6.9 earthquake that killed 63 and injured thousands in 1989, and only narrowly escaping the 7.7 magnitude quake that hit Taiwan ten years later, killing nearly 2,500 people.

“Life is full of adverse situations but we have to face it with courage and with confidence and never give up,” he says. “Many fail just because they have not given their full potential and that’s very sad.”