Blogger dinners are one of my fave kinds of foodie events – you get to eat, drink, and meet people who are just as passionate about food as you are, and the conversations revolve around things like street food festivals, the best place for dumplings, and how to properly make coq au vin. So I was very excited and honored to attend a small media dinner earlier this week at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, with Peter Lee, the president of the school, and Chef Martin Yan – the iconic legend behind Yan Can Cook.
There is much to be impressed by when you consider Chef Yan's history and success. Being a Chinese-American myself, I of course applaud him for elevating Asian food and culture to mainstream media. He was personal friends with Julia Child, and even cooked for her in her kitchen – the same one that's now on display at the Smithsonian. He's authored 30 cookbooks (with more to come!), opened a chain of restaurants (M.Y. China opening next year in San Francisco), and inspired budding chefs in classes and commencement speeches around the world. His new show on the Asian Food Channel, True Passion, showcases how to pair Chinese food with wine – a question that has definitely baffled oenophiles such as myself. (The answer, according to Chef Yan: Treat a Chinese banquet like a tasting menu, with a wine for each flavor profile. My experiments will continue.)
And Yan's culinary skills are no less impressive. We tagged along for a presentation he was giving to CCA students, and his demonstration had most everyone in the room – with or without a chef's jacket – dropping their jaw in shock or whistling appreciatively. We saw him de-bone a whole chicken in 19 seconds and parallel-slice bell peppers into tissue-paper-thin wisps, then stir fry everything amidst a savory and sweet, almost caramel-like sauce. Check out the below video to see Chef Yan's knife techniques!
But when you talk to Chef Yan, it's apparent that beneath the fame, media hype, knife flourishes, and international connections, is a pure, undiluted passion for food and cooking, and for sharing that passion with others while having a good time. That, I guess, is the most magnetic part of his appeal, because when you truly love what you do – people notice, and they want to come along for the ride, too.
After the demo, CCA Executive Chef Michael Weller gave us a tour of the school and an overview of the culinary programs. I admittedly don't know much about culinary institutions, although I think it's great that students at CCA are cross-trained; for example, pastry students receive culinary training, and vice versa, so that graduates are versatile in their skill sets. The curriculum, split into lecture, research, and hands-on components, push students to "learn how to learn," according to Weller, which makes it no different from any other educational program. They even have single-day MasterChef classes for amateur cooks who just want to improve their skills in the kitchen.
After that – time for dinner – the best part! Proudly prepared and served by culinary students in the CCA's restaurant, Technique, as part of the last six weeks of their program. Keeping in mind that these folks are still students, some plates were great, while others needed more work – not so much in terms of flavor, but in the cooking time of certain dishes. They all aced plating though, in my opinion!
Some highlights from the meal:
- Blue cheese with honey and white truffle arugula (1st row, middle): All good things, and even better combined. Will definitely try making my own version.
- Chinoise salad (2nd row, middle): The albacore tuna was seared perfectly, and the ginger soy dressing was refreshingly sweet with a slight kick.
- Spiced pear sorbet (2nd row, right): I actually asked for a substitute to the tomato sorbet with basil oil and sea salt that was originally on the menu, and lucked out with this delicious concoction! The texture was more like a snow cone than a sorbet, but the flavor was amazing. I could drink this stuff.
- Apple-oat crisp with cinnamon-yogurt anglaise (3rd row, right): Tart and sweet, warm and cold, yum and yum.
And to top it all off, I took home a copy of Chef Yan's newest cookbook, Martin Yan's China, which has gorgeous photos from his travels in China and a ton of mouth-watering recipes. Guess I'll be cooking more Chinese food now!
The entire night really got me thinking about what it means to be a chef, and I think part of the beauty of that profession is being able to create. In his pep talk with the CCA students, Chef Yan emphasized that you can create a multitude of dishes from just a couple simple ingredients, and that everyone will end up with a different dish even while using the same ingredients and recipe. Because when you're creating, you're infusing your own personality and identity into the final product. That, in my opinion, is why chefs are similar to artists, and just as inspirational.