Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
[Photos: Aubrie Pick]
A year ago this month, TV personality, restaurateur, and occasional Iron Chef judge Martin Yan and his partners, Ronny and Willy Ng of Koi Palace fame, opened M.Y. China on the fourth floor of the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall near Union Square. No expense was spared in creating an impressive space to showcase Yan's takes on regional Chinese fare, inspired by numerous trips through the country's many culinary regions. Replete with imported fixtures, including an 1,800-pound bell from a Chinese monastery welded over the bar area, 18 cloisonné Buddhas found in a Guangzhou antique market, and a collection of vintage snuff bottles, it's a showstopping space for the Yan Can Cook chef, who's already opened a second location of the concept at the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park. Eater recently caught up with Yan over tea to discuss his new TV show, the mouthfeel of Chinese cuisine, and his denial of his celebrity status.
This is your first restaurant in San Francisco. How does it feel to have a restaurant here, a city in which you've spent a lot of time?
This is my first restaurant in downtown San Francisco, but we have one similar to this in Beijing. I love San Francisco. First off, San Francisco is known for its Chinatown all around the world. And people come from all over to visit Chinatown. They love to come over here and experience Chinese food and Chinese culture. Here, if you look around, the way we do it is we not only introduce Chinese food, but we also flow in a little bit of culture and history and heritage and tradition. These 18 Buddhas have a lot of meaning, and the giant bell at the bar is a bell of good fortune. We found the bell at a monastery, and when we offered to buy it, they didn't want to sell it. We convinced them by saying that they needed a bigger bell, and that this one was too small. So they sold us this one. To ship and hang this bell cost more than buying it, because it weighs, literally, one ton.
Do you currently spend a lot of time in San Francisco?
I spend probably 60% of my time here. I live close by.
Do you live in the city?
I live in the South Bay.
When you go out to eat in San Francisco, where do you go?
My first choice, if I'm entertaining, is M.Y. China. [Chuckles.] Biased, I know, but there's a number of reasons why I come here. The first reason is that I don't have to go to a Hunan, Cantonese or Szechuan restaurant, because I can order different regional cuisines here. Second reason: It's easy to meet people, because there's plenty of parking and it's centrally located. If I have friends from the North or East Bay, they can congregate here. If I'm late, then they can go shopping, because we're in a mall. Third reason: I don't have to pay! [Laughs.] Actually, all of our partners still have to pay, but a little bit less.
Of course, we eat at Koi Palace and R&G Lounge, and sometimes I go to Hakkasan, but only if I eat here enough to save enough money to go to Hakkasan. They're very expensive, and I have to pay full price over there.
You've opened restaurants all around the world. Do you feel that opening a restaurant in SF has been different, or more difficult, than in other places?
To open a restaurant that will survive and be successful in San Francisco is probably the most challenging experience of any city I've worked in. Rent is high, it's one of the most expensive labor forces, and San Franciscans' palates are very demanding and very discriminating. If you're not good, forget it. There's a lot of competition.
So, to make it one year, and be successful and build the brand and continue to expand, is not only about the concept, but about teamwork and management and running a tight ship. A lot of great chefs never learn how to run a successful restaurant, because they're not businesspeople. I'm not a businessperson. My partners are businesspeople. I'm an artist. That's the reason why, for the longest time, I didn't want to open a restaurant.
What has surprised you about your first year in business here?
What's surprised me is how continuously people tell us how much they like us. For example, on Facebook, we have 1,500 likes. People like this place because it is so unique. The place is beautiful. It feels good. It's not stuffy. You have the feeling of being in a Chinese restaurant, but without feeling like you're in a 60-year-old Chinese restaurant. It's clean and smells good, and you can go to the washroom any time.
Also, the most important thing is that we created this as a theater, and the kitchen is the stage. You come here to entertain yourself. We entertain you with good food and all of our culinary performance and skill. We want you to leave here not only remembering what you have eaten, but how Chinese food and wok sauté is done. Your food is being prepared right before your eyes. A lot of times, we invite guests to come back and learn how to make noodles. If you want, I'll bring you in and show you how to do it. We try to make things interactive and accessible. We've never bought any ads; we never advertise.
What makes your interpretation of Chinese cuisine different?
One of the big things that makes Chinese cooking different is that it's not just about the taste, it's about the texture. Western cuisine doesn't pay as much attention to texture. You have a piece of meat, that's it, and vegetables are just the sidekick. With any given day or dish on our menu, each dish is a unique combination of flavor and texture. You're experiencing all of your senses. That's what makes Chinese cooking so different and unique from other cuisine in the world.
How many different textures would you say are in each dish?
The texture differentiates itself by how you cut something. When you bite into something that's minced, it feels different than when it's diced or cut into triangles. It's about mouthfeel and the way you chew on it. These different sensations are what make Chinese cooking. In Chinese cooking, you never see something cut into big chunks. They are always cut up so you can taste a variety of things simultaneously. Also, the texture has to be harmonious. If the vegetables in a dish are julienned, then most likely, the meat is julienned as well. Very rarely would you have julienned, diced and sliced items together in the same dish.
When you order off a Chinese menu, whether you do it at home or at M.Y. China, no one orders just one dish and eats it themselves. You order family-style. So every day is a tasting menu. Family-style is the best way to appreciate the food at any restaurant. Even when I go to a Western restaurant, I always tell my wife and two kids to order different things, so we can share. Dining is all about the experience of flavor, color, and ingredients. That's why we have such a variety of things at M.Y. China.
Our whole team, all six of us, traveled all over Asia, four different times. We ate at over 200 restaurants and tried at least 2,000 dishes. Then we came out with about 50 or 60 of my favorite dishes from different regions. So we're offering unbelievable combinations and selections of my favorite seasonal, regional cuisines of China.
What regions of China do your different dishes represent?
Well, for example, we have kung pao and we have tea-smoked duck, which are both from the Szechuan region. We have the Shanghai dumplings, which are very popular. We have the Peking duck and Peking dumplings and Peking noodles. And then we have Cantonese dim sum and Cantonese steamed fish. That's why we don't call it a Cantonese restaurant or a Hong Kong-style restaurant. We call it "my China," M.Y. China.
Who is your average customer?
50% of our customers are Asian and Chinese. And that means we are cooking authentic, traditional Chinese food—just in a modern setting. But we are actually preparing Chinese food in the way they have been doing it for thousands of years in China. I would not do a chop suey, chow mein or other fusion stuff.
When you're here working, do customers ask to take photos with you often?
A lot. Later on, I'll walk around the tables and take pictures with everybody. It's because the Yan Can Cook show has been around forever, for 34 years. But we're doing brand-new shows right now.
Tell me about the new show.
It's called Martin Yan's Taste of Asia: Destination. We have different destinations. This year, it's Vietnam, but we have other destinations too. We have gone to film there already. I'll show you some places. [He pulls out his phone to show a promo video.] It's going to be broadcast all over, reaching about 2 billion people worldwide.
Have your recent travels inspired any new menu items?
Yes, we constantly have new menu items. We're serving venison, wild boar, alligator, a lot of things.
In terms of your celebrity as a chef…
I'm not a celebrity, I'm a chef.
You are a chef who is well-known…
Um, mildly well-known, yes. Actually, Ryan Scott came into our studio the other day to say hello.
Do you consider Ryan Scott a celebrity chef?
I think he is a celebrity chef, because he is well-known.
Was the emphasis on display and showmanship in the kitchen inspired by your background in television cooking?
Sure, I want people to be more interactive, like an exhibition. If you ever travel to Southeast Asia, they have a lot of street food. You sit there, and they cook right in front of you and serve you right away. Just like a sushi bar. Why are sushi bars so popular? Because they make it right in front of you. An open kitchen like this is very common in many parts of China. The key is, though, that the chef has to be very disciplined and clean and courteous. Every time I come in, I remind the chef to smile. This is hospitality. You want people to be friendly and feel welcomed. You show people you are enjoying yourself.
It sounds like you're more aware of the hospitality business than you give yourself credit for.
No, no. If I was more business-minded, I would be as successful as Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart. They are worth $2-3 billion. I am barely making a living.
Yes, I make money and then I spend all of it on my kids' education.
This location has been open for a year, and you just opened up another in Rohnert Park. Do you have plans to open a third?
We always have plans. As a business, I'm quite sure my partners would tell you that when the right opportunity comes, we'll take it. But we don't want to open too many at one time. What makes this concept very difficult and unique is that we are constantly training our chefs. And so we need not only chefs, but instructors. We never stop learning and improving.
Are there any other challenges you faced in this first year?
I think the biggest challenge is when the labor cost is high. Every single business is about cost and benefit. The labor cost is high and the cost of ingredients keeps going up, but you don't want to sacrifice the quality. So we have to make sure everyone works efficiently. And rather than walk, you run in the kitchen.
Do you have any ideas that you're looking forward to trying out in your second year of business?
You can never do something to please all the people all the time, but we do a lot to listen to our customers' feedback. Taste is in the eye of the beholder. Nobody, not even Thomas Keller, can please everybody all the time. So we just try our best. I don't instill this philosophy in my chefs, but sometimes I joke with the guests. I say, 'I hope you like what we're doing, but if you don't, you should do it yourself.' Because they don't realize how difficult it is to do certain things in the kitchen.
I always use playing golf as an example. If the golf ball is two feet away from the hole, I bet out of 100 people who haven't played golf before, 90 of them won't make it in the hole. It looks very easy. People see me deboning a chicken in 18 seconds, and they think it looks easy. You try it, I say. I have done 2 million chickens.
But we are doing a Chinese New Year celebration. We're trying to share the Chinese culture. Just like everything we do, we're trying to share an experience of Chinese cuisine with people, and to do something we're proud of. We're not into this just to make more money. Of course we don't want to lose money, because then we can't pay our chefs. Our philosophy is to do something that people can learn from, while they're being entertained with good food and good service.