The Food Network and other cable stations provide cooking fans with a plethora of entertaining programs featuring some of the best chefs in the world sharing their talents. But back in the early 1970s, when there was no Food Network, the only chefs on television were Julia Child, Graham Kerr and Hawaii’s Titus Chan.
Chan was born in Canton, China, to a large family. While growing up he observed the cooking styles at various catered events at his home. Initially, he thought cooking was a low trade for a man, but he watched and learned from his family’s 15 maids.
Chan grew up to be not only a master chef, but a pretty smart cookie. Before moving to the United States in 1954, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chinese classical literature and English in Hong Kong. His first steps on American soil were in San Francisco, where he learned that cooking was an honorable profession.
He immediately fell in love with his new home. "America is a special place and the people are so good. It really is a land of opportunity. If a person decides to do something, they can do it," Chan said.
He soon made his way to Searcy, Ark., to attend Harding College on a full scholarship.
During the summer months when school was on hiatus, Chan often spent time in Alaska working various jobs, including cooking at a logging camp. He got his first taste of professional cooking while working in Bill Shield’s Cafe in Juneau.
"I learned the basics of cooking. I was curious how the food smells so good and how do they carve things," he said. Chan again was able to observe how food was prepared and continued to move up the cooking ladder from dishwasher to cook to chef.
Chan furthered his education in 1959 by attending Abilene Christian College in Texas, where he earned a master’s degree in education. After completing his studies in 1962, he moved to Honolulu.
"I fell in love with Hawaii," said Chan. He initially worked as a surveyor for Morris-Knudsen but soon went on to work as a chef at the Hilton Hawaiian Village for six years. During this time he also taught mathematics at Jackson College, where he was selected as Teacher of the Year in 1967, and also attended the University of Hawaii.
During the early 1970s, Chan taught cooking at the College of Continuing Education at UH. His cooking class became so popular, class sizes had to be expanded to accommodate doctors, lawyers, housewives, educators, nutritionists and chefs who wanted to learn the secrets of Chinese cooking.
"People want to learn about Chinese cooking, and I tell them what I know, unlocking those secrets," he said. He also appeared on KHET’s "The Pau Hana Years" with Bob Barker, and with each show his popularity soared, bringing more people to his class. KHET made the decision to put Chan on television so he could be seen by as many people as possible.
In 1972, "Cooking the Chan-ese Way" debuted on KHET, followed by a national release in 1973. The cooking show eventually aired on 230 PBS stations across the nation, including such major markets as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Dallas, requests for his recipes nearly jammed the phone switchboard at the local PBS station.
During the run of the "Chan-ese Way," Chan’s cooking class had a year-and-a-half-long waiting list to get in.
David Silvian of Bogart, Ga., directed "The Chan-ese Way" for KHET and says now, "I have many good memories of Titus and ‘The Chan-ese Way.’ When the series debuted on PBS, summer of 1972, we had a cast party for all involved, including one of our guests, Jack Lord," Silvian said. Lord ended up appearing as a guest on one of the shows.
"Titus was wonderful to work with. He has a great sense of humor, very relaxed when cooking and talking at the same time, a rarity, as one might know from other cooking shows," Silvian said. "He took directions very well; it was a pleasure to work with him and be his friend."
As one of PBS’ stars, the network featured Chan on a national promotional tour of many of its network affiliate cities. He appeared on "The Mike Douglas Show" in August 1973, with actors Chuck Connors and Orson Bean.
By 1974 he had become a national celebrity. The late comic Totie Fields praised Chan when she was on "The Merv Griffin Show" after he cooked for her, Red Skelton, Ann-Margret, George Kennedy, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.
In 1975 the chef was back on local television with "Cooking the Chanese Way" on KITV. "The Flavors of China" debuted on Warner Cable in 1977, and "The Art of Chanese Cooking" in 1981. His "Aloha China" had a three-year run on more than 150 PBS stations. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Chan had a television program at one time or the other on every local station.
All the while, he managed to write five cookbooks and continues to share his talents by teaching at Leeward, Windward, Maui and Kauai community colleges, and at UH-Hilo. He’s served as a visiting professor at mainland colleges, as well as a food preparation consultant and cruise ship performer.
In 2007 Chan teamed up with Martin Yan of "Yan Can Cook" fame in Reno, Nev., where they entertained 500 guests at Harrah’s.
Chan remains a highly requested and respected caterer who finds it easy to cook for an intimate gathering of 30 guests or a crowd of up to 1,000. And, he still entertains thoughts of returning to television for another cooking show.
A.J. McWhorter, a collector of film and videotape cataloging Hawaii’s TV history, has worked as a producer, writer and researcher for both local and national media. His column runs on the first Monday of each month. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.