Even back in his CIS days, Christian had an affinity for the hospitality industry and in the process of pursuing that dream, he found his passion for food. Since then, Christian has left no stone unturned accumulating the experience that he needs to excel in his field – everything from toiling in kitchens at McDonalds to Michelin starred restaurants, doing everything from peeling vegetables, to cleaning pots to cooking. Today, Christian is a Celebrity Chef-trepreneur in Hong Kong, has featured in 6 McDonald’s campaigns, hosts a Kid’s cooking TV show “Jr Chef Corner”, launched a new Chinese restaurant in Mumbai, is filming for a new sitcom and helping to grow our tourism sector in a campaign with the HK Tourism Board… just to name a few! He has also recently released an award-nominated cook book “勁 Cook 金 Book”. Here, Christian takes some time in between shoots to share with us his career path since graduating from CIS to becoming a celebrity chef in Hong Kong and gives a big shout out to CIS drama teacher, Mrs. Sterns, for helping him to seed the foundations 20+ years ago for a career in show biz.
- Name: Christian Yang
- Graduating Year: 1996
- Years at CIS: 1991 – 1996
- College & Degree: BSc Int’l Hospitality Management, EHL Switzerland / MSc Real Estate Investment, Cass Business School, UK
- Current city of residence: Hong Kong
- Places lived before: Mauritius, Switzerland, France, UK, Belgium
Above: Christian as a celebrity chef featured in McDonald’s marketing campaign
So we heard that you’ve been fascinated by food since you were 7. What inspired you? When you were in high-school at CIS, had you always seen yourself going down the culinary track?
Flavour blows my mind. Food makes people happy and I love seeing happy people!
I wanted to be a Hotel Manager and eventually go into hotel development (building hotels) and at the time, all the hotel managers came from Food and Beverage. When I was 15, I needed to find out if I would really enjoy a career in hospitality so I took an internship in the kitchen. I loved it. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen and was trained at the Kowloon Shangri-la for 4 months before I left for Paris to work as a pot washer before hotel school started. Through school, I worked in as many Michelin acclaimed restaurants as I could in any capacity they would accept me, I mostly peeled vegetables and made sure everyone’s had what they needed. Sometimes I was the pot washer but I didn’t care, if that was my job, I wanted to be the best pot washer they have ever worked with. Hotel school and training with super chefs only made sense after I took small work experiences around Europe; picking olives, cleaning floors of wineries, as a farmhand on a chicken farm, working in an abattoir, Pizza maker, pasta maker, McDonalds server, resort entertainment coordinator. Then I felt I had a grasp of what I was doing and why I was doing it. But 8 years of cooking was my stepping stone to my path to hotel development which I eventually found myself working in for another 8 years.
I came back to cooking because I missed it. My wife and I opened 2 restaurants and that put me back into the place I was supposed to be.
We see you on TV, on social media and now on books! Tell us more about what occupies your time these days and what new projects you are working on that you are excited about.
Hah! I am pretty much excited about everything I do! 2017-2018 has been very busy for us. We opened a Chinese restaurant in Mumbai, Typhoon Shelter, which is really busy so I am really excited because I set a personal mission to get people excited about Chinese food again. Strange but true, I am doing a little acting (Thanks Mrs Stearns) and took on a second main role for a sitcom, this one is named REBOOT, which will air on ViuTV in November/December. Our longstanding Kid’s cooking show, “Jr Chef Corner” is also being filmed and I am producing a few programs about health and fitness. I am also going to cook on a cruise liner which is going to be a pretty cool life experience and continuing work with McDonalds and Hong Kong Tourism Board to do my part to attract more people to visit. Planning a Youtube channel too so its gonna be fun!
It’s one thing to be really good at cooking… and it’s quite another to become famous for it and to be the face of a McDonald’s campaign! Can you tell us your story of how you got to where you are and what personal traits were important as you developed your career?
When I started in television 8 years ago, a friend from hotel school told me that I once told her that it was my dream to be like Martin Yan and host cooking shows on TV. Its surreal because I didn’t remember that at all! The cliche thing would be to say something like “I don’t know how I got here”… but the truth is, I know exactly how I got here. My wife made this happen. Judith handled all the marketing for our restaurants and found a way to market through TV shows. But to make it in this industry, she invested a lot of effort into transforming me from a stubborn chef into someone who people could work with.
I wanted to build a relationship of trust with the audience and I dedicate a lot of time and effort in making sure that I am the same person on and off the screen (for cooking shows). So anyone can critique me for anything but would find it difficult to call me phoney or a copycat.
The ups and downs of life have allowed me to collect a few epiphanies that have become a kind of guide or work ethic (if you will):
- Change: If I know only one thing to be true, people and things will change. Generally, people hate change, thats why they convince themselves to believe that “people don’t change”. If you learn to love change then you will be special.
- Purpose: Find one, have one and make sure that one motivates you and motivates others
- Flexibility: You are entitled to your opinion and so are others and that’s cool. You can work with anyone if you know you are ok and you know that everyone else is ok too!
- Accountability: We have to answer to someone, thats just a fact. Don’t fight it.
- Transform: Be your own catalyst for change. Its ok to disagree with yesterday’s you. It’s good to apologise for things that you did wrong years ago. It means you are growing.
- More: You are more than a ____________ you are also a ____________, _______, _________, _______……. – you can fill in the blanks however you want, so long as you want to fill them out.
In stereotypical Chinese families, parents often encourage their children to pursue well-trodden career paths – such as law, medicine, finance… Was there any point in the past when you were really not sure about becoming a chef and perhaps felt pressure to do something a little more conventional? What advice would you give to CIS students and alumni who want to follow in your footsteps?
When our restaurants were struggling because of the effects the Tsunami had on Japanese restaurants, I was looking hard at my options. My CV looked terrible. I was all over the place and was reluctantly convinced that I needed to find a sustainable business of my own to run and consulting seemed to be the most cost effective so I took on any and every project I could get involved in. Which evolved into the business that we have today.
I have observed that at any point of any career, it seems that entrepreneurship becomes a very integral part of any role, especially as an employee. For example, the more senior a chef gets, the more time he/she spends making budgets and working on how the business can make more money. I feel that no matter what you do, business knowledge would be a good tool to help anyone to move forward. I, personally, would love my daughter and son to become doctors because I see that its their nature to want to take care of people. If they eventually choose this path, I would recommend that they take some business and accounting classes on the side so they have a good strategic foundation.
What was the most difficult challenge that you faced so far in your career and how did you overcome it?
I can’t really pinpoint any one challenge as more difficult than another but I can tell you how I overcome the challenge at hand every time: Clare Stearns’ actor’s credo (sort of): “Who are you? What is your relationship with the other characters? What is your relationship with the audience?”. Moving forward in a career is very much like being an actor. At every challenge I needed to become who I needed to be to achieve a desired outcome.
Tell us more about your new book “勁 Cook 金 Book” ! Congratulations on your nomination for Hong Kong Golden Book Awards in “best travel and food” and “favourite author” categories! (VOTE for Christian here!!) What inspired it and where can we grab a copy?
100毛 approached us to work on their first cookbook together. With them, we broke from the norm and created a recipe book that has a different, almost energetic, vibe to it. Over the years I have hosted 8 different shows and have been on close to 300 cooking show episodes. The book is a collection of my favourite recipes from the TV shows I have been on as well as recipes for other topics like “3 dishes for under $60” or “using leftovers to cook new dishes for your packed lunch”. I talk about some of the behind the scenes action during filming and also write some commentary about some unforeseen obstacles in the restaurant industry.
You can buy it at Eslite, Commercial Press, and Yes Asia if you are overseas. In September it will be available at 7-11, Circle K.
How do you describe your cooking style? What made your cooking stand-out amongst all the other chefs out there?
You know when people told you not to play with your food. I am one of those people who can’t stop playing with mine. I am very serious about getting the taste right but I am more into delivering a fun dining experience. y creative process starts by asking “wouldn’t it be fun if – this flavour goes with that, this texture goes with that, etc…”. I want diners and the audience to have real, genuine, down to earth, approachable fun. I don’t know a technical term for it so I made one up “Fun Dining”. Everyone else has their own thing, this is mine.
What was your most memorable CIS moment? How did your CIS experience contribute to who you are today?
I feel that CIS met me where I was.
I was someone who was able to get on in everything except for studying. The school, Mrs. Fleming, Mr. Boyce and Ms. McGarity found a way to ground me and help me make some critical decisions in the planning of my future and selection of by IB subjects based on who I was. By studying subjects I found interesting, I was awoken to a new capacity to learn.
I also feel that the extra curricular activities (Duke of Edinburgh Award, Duke of Edinburgh Award Leadership Programme), inter school competitions (Swimming, Basketball, Rugby, Drama) and overseas trips I participated in at CIS (China homestay, Chang Rai-Chang Mai Trekking, Outward Bound Sea Course, Sapporo Inter-school Ski Trip, etc..) contributed so much to my outlook on life.
Each of us can speak volumes about this but in essence, I feel that CIS was an environment that cultivated a boldness to aim further than where you stood and a “Rise to the occasion” spirit.
Who was your favorite teacher at CIS?
Mrs. Stearns , Mrs. O’Connell, Mr. Boyce
What was your favorite subject at CIS and was it related to anything you actually ended up doing?
Drama/theatre Arts and surprise surprise, I am in television.
Please read the following questions and write down the first answer to pop into your mind (3 second limit ):
- What is your favorite movie: Big Night
- What do you have for dinner on a weekday: Endorphins awoken by carbs
- What would be your last meal on death row: My words
- If you could have a one hour conversation with anyone – historical or current – who would that be and why: Mrs. Stearns, to thank her… and to get some free acting tips