Martin Yan traveled the world with his cooking show, “Yan Can Cook,” and transformed our culinary landscape. Now UC Davis is home to his archive of cookbooks, photographs and more.
Photography by Gregory Urquiaga
“If Yan can cook, so can you!” Echoed thousands of times by public television audiences on “Yan Can Cook” — one of the longest-running food and travel programs in the world — the motto of chef Martin Yan ’73, M.S. ’77, has inspired millions to explore Asian cooking.
From these words, Yan has built an illustrious, 40-year career that transformed the culinary landscape of the U.S. and the world.
Yan said his success is driven by a lifelong commitment to bring the joy of cooking to as many people as possible. That same commitment is also what inspired Yan and his wife, Susan ’75, to make a gift to the UC Davis Library to create the Chef Martin Yan Legacy Archive.
The archive encompasses Yan’s collection of nearly 3,000 cookbooks, including 30 cookbooks authored by Yan, almost half a million 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 a monetary donation to support the library’s work to preserve and digitize the archive.
Martin said he hopes his collection of cookbooks and food and travel photographs will help 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,” Yan said. “I hope this will become a center for people to learn about Asian food and culture in a fun way.”
A passion forged in hardship
Although cooking is Yan’s life’s passion, his earliest experiences with food are 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 riots to protest the British rule.
“Experiencing these difficult times, it definitely helped to build my character and fighting spirit,” Yan said.
Food as an equalizer
As hard as that time was, it is when Yan perfected his legendary cutting skills (he can debone an entire chicken in 18 seconds) and when he developed an appreciation for the unifying elements of food.
“When people sit around the dining table, their political affiliation or economic status does not matter,” he said. “Food is the equalizer that brings all of us closer together.”
When he finished high school in Hong Kong, Yan embarked on his first overseas trip to Canada hoping to further his education. Yan was only in Canada for a few months before he visited UC Davis for what was supposed to be a weekend trip. The campus’s friendly atmosphere and bicycles, plus the California sunshine, enticed him to stay. He enrolled in UC Davis’ food science program.
“Food is the equalizer that brings all of us closer together.”
“My dream was to be close to food and in the field of creating food for people in the world,” said Yan, who received the UC Davis Distinguished Achievement Award in 2013. “The food science program at Davis gave me a wonderful opportunity to do this.”
A global career that began at UC Davis
When Yan moved to Davis, he lived with five other students in a two-bedroom apartment. He worked a minimum-wage job at the one Chinese restaurant in Davis, but he quickly realized he would have to find a better-paying job to cover tuition and living expenses.
He pursued a job at UC Davis Extension (now UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education) after discovering it paid instructors $18 an hour but, Yan recalled, the director dismissed him as a candidate due to his lack of formal 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.
Eventually, Yan recalled, the director told him, “‘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 it’s less than 15, I don’t want to see you again!’”
Yan called everyone he knew and, in just a few weeks, 43 people had signed up for his class. He went on to teach numerous classes at UC Davis Extension and to his fellow students at the UC Davis Coffee House. Yan managed to make enough money to pay for all his expenses and stay at Davis.
Although Yan started teaching out of necessity, the experience affirmed his desire to share his love of cooking with others.
“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.”
A star is born
Yan’s television career began by accident while he was on break as a UC Davis 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 be the guest chef on a local Canadian talk show because the regular chef had 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, and soon Yan was offered a contract to host his own daily cooking show. He filmed 130 episodes in just 26 production days.
After Yan returned to Davis, the show’s producers began calling him asking for his cookbook because they were inundated with recipe requests. Yan told his UC Davis friends, and together they raised nearly $24,000 to help Yan publish his first cookbook, The Joy of Wokking: A Chinese Cookbook. The book 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 began airing the show “Yan Can Cook.” It was soon broadcast nationally and internationally, making Yan one of the first people of Asian descent in the U.S. to host a daily cooking show. Since then, Yan has filmed more than 3,500 half-hour television episodes, broadcast globally, and “Yan Can Cook” has become an international brand.
An important element of his television presentation and cookbooks is to share insight into the culture and heritage of the countless places he has visited.
“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 credited his idol Julia Child for inspiring his long, illustrious career. “I consider myself not just a cook, chef and restaurateur, but a cultural and culinary ambassador.”
Yan remains a restaurateur in the U.S. and China and a sought-after speaker globally. During the pandemic, he teamed up with 100 Chinese chefs and restaurants across the U.S. to offer free meals to those on the frontline. Thousands of meals were delivered to hospitals and police officers. The “Yan Can Cook” team just finished filming “M.Y. Chinatown” (Martin Yan’s Chinatown) to bring together communities to fight against Asian hate crimes.
Yan’s other love
In addition to finding his calling at UC Davis, Yan met the love of his life and 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.”
“Any dish he cooks is usually pretty good,” said Susan with a laugh. “Plus, he can cut much faster than me.”
Although they don’t share the same responsibilities in the kitchen, the couple have worked together for more than 40 years while raising twin boys, Devin and Colin. Devin is a graduate of UC Irvine, and Colin graduated from UC Davis in 2014.
In May 2022, the Yans will visit UC Davis for an event celebrating the new library collection. The event will feature a conversation with the couple and a cooking demonstration, as well as a book signing by Martin Yan.
“Davis has been very, very good to me,” Yan said. “Some of my best memories were from the time I spent at Davis.”