I love cooking shows.
Competition shows, demonstration shows, even that show Food Factory – if it involves the preparation of food, I’ll watch it, as long as that horrid Axe-body-spray-smelling Guy Fieri is nowhere near it.
My love of cooking shows is lifelong. One of my very favourite programs as a young child was the fabulous Wok With Yan.
Produced out of CBC Vancouver, every episode started with a pre-recorded segment of Yan visiting different places in Asia; he would talk a little bit about the culture of the area, and discuss the food. I loved those little vignettes. I was only four years old when Yan went off the air the first time (I kept watching him in syndication though, because I had favourite episodes, yes of a cooking show WHAT OF IT) and those travelogues were my first exposure to the bigger world out there beyond my country upbringing.
The cooking part of Wok With Yan was actually recorded LIVE, in front of a studio audience. Imagine! The chef, Stephen Yan, loved to play to the crowd. He had a pleasant, easygoing manner and he loved a good joke. (He loved a bad joke even more.) I used to struggle sometimes to understand his thick Cantonese accent, but I loved the way he talked, and all the food looked really good. At the end of every episode, one lucky audience member got invited up on stage to sit with Yan and eat. Can you imagine if any of the big celebrity chefs did that now? Cooked in front of a live audience without food stylists? Invited an audience member who might say anything at all up on stage with you? They couldn’t handle it. I know that Rachael Ray had a live audience for her show, but I also know that the one episode I saw she called it “cooking” when she wrapped a slice of prosciutto around a raw asparagus spear, and when Martha Stewart had her live show her cooking failed on a semi-regular basis.
That never happened to Yan! He had such a clear and obvious love of cooking. He practically danced around the kitchen. Every single recipe including something he called “Chinese wonder-powder!” – as an adult I realize to my sorrow that it was probably MSG, but as a child it felt like he was tossing in some magical ingredient I would never fully understand. I remember reading labels at the grocery store, trying to find “Chinese wonder-powder” and failing. He had a hole in his countertop for all the food waste; when he shoved peelings and stuff into it he’d say here’s a little something for my brother, which delighted me even though it made no sense. Every episode would start with him tying on an apron, and the apron always had a different Yan-based pun. I freely admit I had to check Wikipedia for this list, and now I want several of these aprons for my very own:
- Wokking My Baby Back Home
- Danger, Yan at Wok
- Wok Around the Clock
- Wok the Heck
- You Are Wok You Eat
- Wok Goes up Must Come Down
- Wok’s New, Pussycat?
- Wokkey Night in Canada
- Stuck Between a Wok and a Hard Place
- Raiders of The Lost Wok
- Eat Your Wok Out
- Moon Wok
- Jailhouse Wok
- Superior Wokmanship
He never, ever took himself too seriously, and I think that was the appeal for me. He was so different to anyone I had ever encountered, and he was just a fun & funny guy, cooking what looked like delicious food and sharing it with his new friends.
While researching this post, I discovered that many of the original episodes are on YouTube in their entirety, so bye-bye productivity. In case you’ve never seen Wok With Yan, here’s a fun segment on cooking beef & broccoli. I distinctly remember seeing this, and ordering this dish at my hometown’s Chinese restaurant when we went for my birthday one year, excited that I could try something I’d watched him prepare.
So, Stephen Yan, wherever you are, I truly and without irony salute you. In some measure, you influenced my love of food and cooking. Watching this old segment again reminds me to stop stressing so much about food prep, to instead just have fun with it and stop taking things so seriously.
And maybe to get a punny apron of my very own.