Alum Martin Yan Shares Cooking Tips, Diverse Flavors

Dining Services Program Showcases Food From Many Cultures

Martin Yan gestures during a cooking demo
Martin Yan visited UC Davis for a cooking demo last week. (JJ Noel/UC Davis)

When Martin Yan arrived in Davis as an international student in 1969, the minimum wage in California was just $1.65, but he discovered teaching a UC Davis extension course on Chinese cooking could yield $18 an hour. He said he implored the director: “Give me a chance to teach a course.”

Born in Guangzhou, China, Yan said this teaching opportunity led to his future culinary success and a lifelong bond with UC Davis’ food science program. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food science from the university in 1973 and 1977, learning both English and cooking as new languages.

“I always tell people, when you [become an] Aggie, you’re forever an Aggie,” Yan said. “It allowed me to connect with people in the community and improve my English, and also my well-being as a human.”

Yan returned to campus Friday (Jan. 26)  to kick off Lunar New Year celebrations through a takeover of the kitchen at the Latitude restaurant, giving away copies of his new cookbook, Best of Yan Can Cook, to students who participated in his demonstrations.

Yan is the second recent guest chef to showcase their talents and recipes at the university's residential dining facilities. Award-winning Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie hosted three nights of dinners in November. The guest chef program is a larger effort to diversify the dining facilities’ menus and celebrate the cultures of the student body. Dining Services also invites students to submit recipes to be incorporated into menus as “Flavors from Home,” a nod to those international students celebrating events like Lunar New Year away from home for the first time.

Food cooked by Martin Yan.
Some of the food featured at Latitude last week. (JJ Noel/UC Davis)
Martin Yan signs an autograph
Martin Yan autographed cookbooks during his visit. (JJ Noel/UC Davis)

Decades cooking on camera

Yan hosted the public television show “Yan Can Cook” for over 40 years. It turned Yan into an ambassador of Chinese food and culture in households worldwide. Several students in the audience said they grew up watching their parents watching Yan on television.

Yan cites the Department of Food Science and Technology’s large number of faculty members as a sign of its growing success, and said he was in awe of new campus dining facilities like Latitude.

“Lunar New Year is also referred to as a spring festival,” Yan told Dateline. “We celebrate the spring with the student, the faculty and the staff, to really talk about healthy eating and celebrate a new academic year.”

He also discussed how the celebrations were ushering in the Year of the Dragon, a symbol of “health, strength and good fortune.”

The event also marked Latitude’s fourth anniversary. The restaurant features an array of international dishes scratch-made from fresh ingredients, featured on a menu that changes daily. On the other side of the building, the Latitude market offers pre-made, to-go meals and made-to-order drinks, shakes and more.

“When I was here, the food [was] never as good,” Yan said. He cited Latitude’s leadership, including Executive Chef Roger Thompson, and the fact that the kitchen purchases ingredients grown on campus by students, saying the food rivals a fine dining restaurant.

“This is one of the best dining commons and food services I’ve ever worked with,” Yan said.

Interactive meal

Students stretch noodles
Students make noodles at Latitude. (JJ Noel/UC Davis)

On Friday, Latitude's serving stations featured a variety of Asian dishes, including emperor's pork, stir-fried bok choy, jasmine rice, egg tart, almond cookies, pineapple cake, sesame balls with red bean paste. Both the food and Yan’s cooking demonstrations drew crowds.

In groups of four, Yan taught students how to make noodles from large mounds of dough, or as Yan called it, “how to turn the human into a human noodle machine.” He shouted out noodle-making instructions throughout – “Stretch! Fold!” – to a growing audience.

“Food breaks down all the barriers. Food brings people closer together, and at the dining table, we're all friends,” Yan said. “I'm so honored to see all of this happening.”

Media Resources

José Vadi is a writer for Dateline UC Davis, and can be reached by email.

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