Chef Martin Yan creates legacy archive at UC Davis Library
Host of legendary cooking show and global brand “Yan Can Cook” donates cookbooks, photographs to UC Davis
World-renowned celebrity chef of more than 40 years, host of the public television show “Yan Can Cook” and UC Davis alumnus, Martin Yan ’73, M.S. ’77, and his wife, Susan ’75, recently made a gift to the UC Davis Library Archives and Special Collections to create the Chef Martin Yan Legacy Archive.
The gift encompasses Chef Yan’s collection of cookbooks (close to 3,000), including 30 cookbooks authored by Yan, thousands of photographs, and videos, media clips and slides taken as Yan traveled the world to film his food and travel show, “Yan Can Cook.” Artifacts in the collection will include a number of awards Yan received over the years and his first wok. The Yans also gave $20,000 to support the library’s work to preserve and digitize the archive.
“The Martin Yan archive provides valuable insight into an important era of Asian cultural and culinary history, and one of UC Davis’ most celebrated alumni,” said University Librarian and Vice Provost of Digital Scholarship MacKenzie Smith. “Once this collection is digitized, it will allow scholars around the world to learn more about Asian food and Martin’s amazing career.”
“His story is an important part of the history of the Northern California food movement and cultural diversity in America, which the UC Davis Library is committed to preserving and sharing with the world,” Smith added.
Martin and Susan selected the UC Davis Library as the home for their archive because of the university’s prestige in food and wine science, including the library’s reputation as the world’s preeminent wine library and its growing collections about food. Martin hopes his collection of cookbooks and food and travel photographs will be useful for scholars and students alike to understand more about Asian culture through food.
“It’s truly an honor and a privilege for me to be working with the library at my beloved alma mater to build this Chinese and Asian culinary archive,” he said. “I hope this will become a center for people to learn about Asian food and culture in a fun way.”
The couple also saw the gift as a way to deepen their connection with UC Davis, where his career began. The Yans will return to UC Davis for an event celebrating the collection in September 2023, which will feature a conversation with Martin, cooking demonstration and book signing.
A global career that began at UC Davis
Martin Yan came to UC Davis in the late 1960s for what was supposed to be a weekend trip to visit friends and escape the cold of Canada, where he was living at the time. The campus’ agricultural landscape, friendly atmosphere and thousands of bicycles, which reminded him of his birthplace of bicycle-city Guangzhou, China, coupled with the California sunshine, enticed him to stay. He soon enrolled in UC Davis’ food sciences program, eventually earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the top-ranked department.
“My dream was to be close to food and the field of creating food for people in the world,” Yan said. “And the food science program at Davis gave me a wonderful opportunity to do this.”
Although cooking would become his life’s passion, Yan’s earliest experiences with food were rooted in hardship. Growing up during the most turbulent years of modern Chinese history, Yan’s childhood memories include famine, drought, going to bed hungry every night, and political turmoil. His father died when Yan was 5, and when Yan was 13, his mother decided to send him to work at his distant uncle’s Hong Kong eatery. She thought it was the only way he would not go hungry. Along with the restaurant staff, Yan slept in the restaurant after hours. During his years in Hong Kong, he again witnessed social turmoil, bombings, drought and daily riots to protest the British rule.
“Experiencing these difficult times, it definitely helped to build my character and fighting spirit,” Yan said. “Enduring hardship as a child gave me a tough mentality so that I was able to face any difficulties later in life.”
When he finished high school in Hong Kong, with the help of a church elder, Yan embarked on his first overseas trip to Canada hoping to further his education. Soon after, he moved to Davis and enrolled at UC Davis, where he lived with five other students in a two-bedroom apartment. Yan and his roommates slept in sleeping bags – there was simply not enough space to fit 3 beds in a small room.
Yan worked briefly at the one Chinese restaurant in Davis, but he soon realized the minimum wage of $0.65 an hour at that time would not be enough to cover tuition and living expenses. He heard from a friend that Madam Wu in Los Angeles was teaching cooking classes at UCLA, and instructors were paid $18 per hour. Madam Wu suggested that Yan talk to the director of the extension program about the possibility of starting a Chinese cooking class at Davis.
Yan recalled the director asking, “‘Are you a certified professional chef?’ I said, ‘Not really.’ ‘Have you worked as a head chef at a restaurant?’ ‘Never.’ ‘Do you have a teaching certificate?’ ‘No.’”
The director dismissed Yan as a candidate due to his lack of culinary and teaching credentials. Determined to earn enough money to study at UC Davis, however, Yan returned to the office the next day and the day after that.
“He was furious,” Yan recalled. After several days of Yan’s persistence, he finally said, ‘Okay, let’s make a deal. You’re driving me crazy. We’ll put a small ad in the Davis Enterprise and if you get 15 signups, I’ll give you a chance. If less than 15, I don’t want to see you again!’”
Yan figured this was his last chance if he wanted to stay in Davis. He called all his friends and customers where he worked. Miraculously, in just a few short weeks, 43 people actually signed up, including several spouses of Davis faculty.
He eventually would teach a series of beginning, intermediate and advance classes and expand to include walking tours of Chinatown. In addition to teaching for the Davis Extension, he taught classes for his fellow students at the UC Davis Coffee House (CoHo). Yan managed to make enough money to pay for all his expenses and stay at Davis.
“I found tremendous pleasure in seeing others enjoy learning about cooking and sharing their newfound skills with family and friends,” he said. “Through teaching, I was able to continue my education at UC Davis and build my confidence and my persona. Without these experiences, I wouldn’t have been able to eventually have a television career.”
Yan’s other love
In addition to finding his calling at UC Davis, Yan also met the love of his life and future business partner Susan Yoshimura Yan. Susan, a biological sciences major, came to UC Davis because of its proximity to her hometown of Yuba City, where she lived on a 20-acre peach farm. The two met through mutual friends, many of whom took Yan’s cooking class at the CoHo.
“All her roommates took my class, except for her. Then her roommates invited me to their house and I was so curious, ‘Everyone took my cooking class. How come she didn’t?’ So I asked her out,” he said with a chuckle. “Still she is the only one who never took my cooking class, so I have been cooking for her for the past 40 years. I figure it is a lifetime commitment.”
“Any dish he cooks is usually pretty good,” said Susan with a laugh. “Plus, he can cut much faster than me.”
Yan is legendary for his knife skills, chopping speed and ability to de-bone a whole chicken in 18 seconds.
Although they don’t share the same responsibilities in the kitchen, Martin and Susan have worked together for more than 40 years in their business, Yan Can Cook, while raising twin boys, Devin and Colin. Devin is a graduate of UC Irvine and Colin graduated from UC Davis in 2014.
“It’s actually fun working together. It’s also nice that he has his focus and I have mine,” Susan said. “He travels extensively, too. The pandemic is the longest he’s been home since we met.”
A star is born
Martin Yan’s television career began by accident while he was on break as a graduate student. He was helping a high school friend open a restaurant in Calgary, Alberta. One day, he was asked at the last minute to fill in for a local television talk show because the regular resident chef had suddenly fallen ill. The producers knew Yan from visiting his friend’s restaurant. Although Yan had no on-camera experience, his affable personality won the day. The producers asked him to return the following week and soon Yan was offered a contract to host his own daily cooking show.
“I figured I knew how to cook a couple hundred dishes, and all I needed was to present 260 dishes so I said, ‘okay, I accept,’” said Yan. He credits his idol Julia Child for inspiring his long, illustrious career.
To everyone’s surprise, Yan, along with two assistants, finished filming a remarkable 130 episodes in just 26 production days — or five, 30-minute shows per day. A few short months later, the producers were calling him to ask if he had a cookbook because their staff couldn’t field all the calls they were receiving from viewers asking for the show recipes. Yan told his UC Davis friends and together they raised close to $24,000 to help Yan publish his first book, “The Joy of Wokking: A Chinese Cookbook.” The book surprisingly sold out in a few short months. Since then, it has been reprinted many times.
Yan continued to host the cooking show for Calgary station CFAC-TV for three more years. Then, in 1982, the San Francisco PBS station KQED-TV began airing the show “Yan Can Cook.” Soon the show was broadcast nationally and internationally, making Yan one of the first people of Asian descent in the United States to host a daily cooking show. Since then, Yan has filmed more than 3,500 half-hour television episodes, broadcast globally, making “Yan Can Cook” one of the longest-running food and travel television programs in the world, according to The New York Times.
From his television programs, Yan built an international brand around his famous tagline, “If Yan can cook, so can you!” He is the author of more than 30 cookbook titles and remains a sought-after speaker for colleges, culinary academies, charity organizations, and food and wine festivals and cultural events around the world. Chef Yan is also a restaurateur in the U.S. and China.
Chinese cultural and culinary ambassador
Despite his long career as an accomplished culinarian, Yan sees himself as much more than that.
“I consider myself not just a chef and a restaurateur, but more importantly, as a culinary and cultural ambassador. I believe that food is the delicious bridge that brings people of all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds together,” he said.
An important element of his television presentation and cookbooks is the culture and heritage of the countless places he has visited. His fluency in several Chinese dialects combined with his engaging personality often gained him access to kitchens typically out of reach to most.
“We traveled the world for 40 years to bring the best of history, culture, heritage and food to audiences around the world,” said Yan, who was honored with the UC Davis Distinguished Achievement Award in 2013.
Along the way through his travels, he took thousands of videos and photographs throughout Asia and many parts of the world — images that are part of his generous gift to the UC Davis Library.
“We discovered less known indigenous people of Asia and countless exotic places around the world — people who have been living in the same isolated spot for thousands of years, and in places so remote they were very hard to get to. We were lucky to capture these amazing images,” Yan said.
To teach and inspire
Currently, Yan is working with a variety of enterprises to bring Chinese and Asian food to the public. He recently launched his food products at Costco. He also takes advantage of his celebrity status to help and nurture the next generation of young chef students as he travels the world, offering seminars at culinary schools and institutions.
In the past two years during the pandemic, he teamed up with 100 Chinese chefs and restaurants across the U.S. to offer free meals to the frontline heroes. Thousands of meals were delivered to hospitals and police officers.
The Yan Can Cook team also just finished filming “M.Y. Chinatown” (Martin Yan’s Chinatown) to bring communities together to fight against Asian hate crimes.
“When we introduce food and culture to others, they will have a better understanding and appreciation of one another so there will be less misperception,” he said. “When people sit around the dining table, their political affiliation or economic status does not matter. Food is the equalizer that brings all of us closer together.”
Throughout his long, professional career, Chef Yan has worked very hard to bring the joy of cooking to many. He sees his recent gift to the UC Davis Library furthering that lifelong commitment.