Food is an integral part of the human experience, and it’s a unifier. Nearly anywhere in California, a whole range of cuisines from different cultures can be easily found and eaten by anyone interested enough to try.
That’s why celebrity chef Martin Yan has dedicated so much of his life to food — because it bridges cultures.
“Well, there’s a Chinese saying … that food brings people together. People eat together, cook together, eat together, stay together,” Yan said to CapRadio Insight host Vicki Gonzalez. “Food brings all of us together. Food has no national, international boundary.”
Yan made his television debut in Canada in 1978 and then moved on to host the award-winning PBS show "Yan Can Cook" in 1982.
But before he got an audience reach of two billion viewers, Yan got his start as a UC Davis student by opening the minds of chefs to Asian cuisine at the university.
In a show of gratitude, the proud Aggie is donating a culinary archive of 3,000 cookbooks, thousands of photographs and other mementos from an international career that spanned over 40 years.
Gonzalez spoke with Yan about food, unity and his cookbook donation.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On Yan’s connection and memories of attending UC Davis
Well, I love Davis … When [my wife and I] went over there, it’s not as big as now, so it’s a very, very unbelievable, charming, sweet, caring community.
Everywhere you turn around, people say hello, and they’re very friendly. They’re very helpful. So, this is how I polish my English and finally able to teach cooking classes.
I have such an affection and love of the Davis community and UC Davis. That’s the reason why I decided instead of having all these cookbooks to myself and my own library, I decided to just donate to the UC Davis library.
So everybody around the world, they want to learn and understand more about Chinese and Asian cuisine, culture and heritage and history — then they can just go to this digitized information and you can check it out — people from around the world, whether you’re a food lover or a scholar.
On how Yan acquired this huge collection of cookbooks
When I travel, I collect cookbooks and I always tell people whenever you have leftover cookbooks, the cookbook that you have read, and you don’t need to use it all the time, give it to me.
So every time when I come back, I will have a whole full suitcase of cookbooks from different parts of the country, and the world, that people gave to me.
So actually, about 10 years ago, I gave about 500 — I donated about 500 cookbooks to UC Davis library already — so this 3,000 is an addition.
And hopefully, when I finish my career, and I slowed down a little bit, I’ll donate another five or seven hundred.
On why food is so important to Yan
Well, there’s a Chinese saying … an Asian saying, that food brings people together.
You know, people eat together, cook together, eat together, stay together. That’s the reason why I know there is a family, the family value, the family unity. Food brings all of us together.
Food has no national, international boundary. When I was growing up, I was hungry when I go to bed because when I was growing up, there was a lot of famine, a lot of natural disasters, a lot of problems.
It was the most turbulent era in modern Chinese history. So with all the kids and malnutrition, we never have enough to eat. And when we were eating in the school cafeteria, we have to fight for the food, and if you’re slow, you have nothing to eat.
And so, when I was growing up, I always reminded myself that I have to be close to food. I have to work in a restaurant, or if I study, I want to make sure I study food so I can learn how to prepare and produce more food to people, particularly the people that are hungry.
Even today, many parts of the world, people are still going to bed hungry, including the U.S. of A.
On why Yan believes cooking at home and food shows have become so popular
I think that the thing is, people finally realize you can derive joy and happiness in your kitchen when you eat. You can derive pleasure.
But when you’re eating with somebody else in your family, with your friends, when you have extra food to share with people, that’s joy. You’re sharing joy and happiness with people. When you cook, it’s very therapeutic.
A lot of people don’t realize when you cook … you have to focus. You have to concentrate otherwise everything burns into charcoal, right? … And then when you cook, you can actually slow down and contemplate.
Really, it’s very nurturing to your soul. When you cook, you learn to organize, learn to save money. You learn to cook something healthy. It’s about sharing, most of the time, when we cook, we don’t just eat it by ourselves.
It’s much more fun and more joy and much more happiness when you share your cooking, your food, with other people. Food is meant to be shared.
And … during the pandemic, more and more people cooking at home, and eating together with family — that’s an amazing, wonderful opportunity for all of us to get to know each other again.
Tell our own story, our experience of the day. So I think food is wonderful. It’s the best, it’s the super-connector, [it connects people. It galvanizes people. It brings people together.
The best way to do it is to cook together, eat together. You stay together longer.
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