Master Chef Martin Yan looked trim and youthful as he presided over a plate of juicy steamed dumplings at his newly opened M.Y. China restaurant nestled under the dome in San Francisco’s Westfield Shopping Center. M.Y. China is billed as a family friendly restaurant with dim sum, hand pulled noodles, dumplings and other Chinese dishes. During our interview, Yan told us that the menu is an expression of his personal favorites. There is a tidy open kitchen, giant ornamental bell in the bar area, tea service and cocktails for a stylish feel minus any stuffiness. M.Y. China dinner guests can expect to see him both on February 12th and 26th, greeting tables and celebrating the Chinese New Year.
Longtime Bay Area resident Yan is a well-known Chinese cooking expert who has hosted his award-winning cooking show Yan Can Cook since the late 1970s. He has broadcast over 3,500 cooking shows worldwide and authored 30 cookbooks. There is also a line of fast-casual restaurants called Yan Can and he has been an Iron Chef America judge. Yan has a Masters in food science from UC Davis and was born in Guangzhou, China to a restaurateur father and a mother who operated a grocery store. At age 13, he apprenticed at a popular Hong Kong restaurant, then studied at the Institute of Cookery in Hong Kong. I interviewed Yan because he has a new TV show about Vietnam coming out and seems to be ever-so-busy with interesting food projects locally and beyond. His comments have been edited for length.
Bay Area Bites: Why open a restaurant in a mall?
Yan: The Westfield mall invited us to come here. This is one of the busiest malls in Northern California with over 20 million people passing through. Having a brand new M.Y. China in a mall gives us tremendous exposure: there are guests from around the country and around the world. It’s the same reason why people go to Las Vegas and New York to open a restaurant: branding and prime location. The dome is beautiful. Westfield wanted to have a good operation here and gave us a very lucrative offer for tenant improvement.
Bay Area Bites: What are your favorite dishes?
Yan: When people develop a menu, they always do a favorite. This menu is small and has only 53 to 55 items; a typical Chinese menu has 250-400 items. We selected some of my personal favorites and went with what we think are everyone’s favorites for the menu. That means every single ones are my favorites (laughs).
Everything we have done is all handmade and beautifully done. The juicy shanghai dumpling are called that because they are juicy and very moist. I love the cut noodles, beef longevity noodle, Kung Pao chicken and Kung Pao crab. There is a spinach seafood dumpling with tangy garlic sauce.
We want to have a family restaurant and that’s why we serve family style. We want people to have good food and to share and have healthy food. Our food is very light, we use less salt, less oil, and there is no MSG added. We use as much local ingredients as possible. The wild boar is local and we try to support the local farmer.
Bay Area Bites: You travel often. Where are we with appreciation for other cuisine in the U.S.?
Yan: There are 54,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. and then another 15,000 Asian restaurants. By common sense, there is supply if there is demand. You see more and more sushi. Thirty years ago there was not a lot of sushi places and even 40 years ago the fishermen would not eat their raw fish. It had to be cooked.
Americans are becoming more appreciative and adventurous, more accepting and more sophisticated because of TV, cookbooks, and people travel widely. There’s more commerce between the US and China.
I think the American palate will continue to expand and grow and be more adventurous. Things they never tried before they now try.
Bay Area Bites: Where have you been lately?
Yan: I just came back from Manila, Malaysia and Vietnam. I did 26 shows to air later this year, called Taste of Vietnam. We went to every city and village in Vietnam. I go to Asia eight times a year. I taste it all and try to experience the local culture and heritage.
Bay Area Bites: How did you come to meet Anthony Bourdain?
Yan: We get invited to go to different places and events and participate -- as celebrity guests. I’ve been with him in Lake Tahoe, and Reno and we got a chance to do things together. I attended some of his presentations. I like that he’s a straight shooter -- a lot of people can’t do that and he’s had the courage to do it.
Bay Area Bites: What are you working on these days?
Yan: We have a second M.Y. China set to open in November this year in Santa Rosa. I also have something in the works for Summerland, Las Vegas. With a lot of developers, once they know I want to do a restaurant, they always give us some deal.
Bay Area Bites: It’s the year of the snake. What is your sign?
Yan: I’m a snake. We're going to do a special New Year dinner and menu. The New Year is always about sharing, family, and longevity. So we’ll serve a lot of noodles.
Bay Area Bites: Do you have any guilty pleasure foods?
Yan: I’ve maintained the same weight for 26 years, and not gone a pound over. I live a very clean, simple life. I eat a lot of vegetables and seafood. I stay away from junk food. I never touch popcorn or chips -- those tortilla chips with the cheese. If I'm going to a movie, I just eat a simple dinner before. A lot of people love snack foods and I don’t. Snack foods are loaded with salt and preservatives. I studied food science at Davis and think "Why do that to yourself?"