About two years ago, celebrity chef Martin Yan pitched an idea to UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi: a new center at his alma mater for the study of Chinese food and beverage culture.
On Monday, UCD celebrated the opening of the Confucius Institute at UC Davis, an educational partnership with Jiangnan University and the Hanban arm of the China’s Ministry of Education.
About 1,800 people were expected to get a taste of Yan’s spin on rice-wine cooking and Confucian cuisine flavors Monday evening at the Robert Mondavi Institute and take in a performance of Chinese song and dance at the Mondavi Center.
Hanban has teamed with universities and other organizations to open Confucius Institutes to promote understanding of Chinese culture at more the 400 locations around the world, more than 90 within the United States.
The institute at UCD will be the first of these devoted to food and beverage culture.
Jiangnan, home to the top food science program in China, and UCD, renowned for its food science and viticulture and enology programs, are “a perfect match,” said Yan, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food science from UCD before embarking on his career as a television host, cookbook author and restaurateur.
The institute at UCD will build on existing exchanges between the Davis campus and Jiangnan that date back to 1981, according to Charlie Shoemaker, a professor emeritus of food science and technology who has been active with food science programs in China for about 30 years.
Shoemaker will lead the institute with Linxia Lange, director of Asian international programs at UCD.
The face of the institute will be public lectures on subjects like the history, culture and science of tea, cooking classes and food-tasting events that emphasize the cultural significance of food in China over technique, and intensive Mandarin language courses for high school students.
On campus, unlike previous research collaborations, the institute will focus primarily on education. Four Jiangnan professors, led by deputy institute director Jianqiao Dong, will teach language courses at UCD and plan institute programs.
Twenty-two Jiangnan students are to arrive on campus next week. They’ll complete their fourth year of undergraduate study here. While the exchange program started with food science majors, students now take part in a range of majors, including engineering, computer science, biotechnology and language.
Shoemaker leads a UC-wide monthlong summer program in China called “A Taste of China.” About 20 students typically make the trip, which includes a variation on the class Food Science 10 that includes field trips to food-related business and sites of agricultural and historical importance.
“We want to get our students immersed in the Chinese culture so they’ll be more competitive for those kinds of jobs,” Shoemaker said. “It’s clear in this globalization that if you work for a large food company, you may spend a portion of your time in China, Europe or other parts of Southeast Asia.”
UCD hopes to arrange for more of its students to take classes at Jiangnan and for its professors to take part in programs there.
Shoemaker said UCD has expertise to offer the Chinese.
“(China has) been very much a farmers’ market type of society up until 15 or 20 years ago when refrigerators and manufacturing (became more prevalent). Before that, a restaurant was probably the largest food processing operation,” he said.
“This has posed a number of different challenges to China, which has not had large manufacturing and distribution systems, specifically in terms of quality and safety. It brings up a lot of issues that we still have to deal with in the U.S. — things that have to be carefully watched over.”
Hanban will fund educational programs and Chinese scholars participating in the program. Jiangnan also will provide funding. UCD is providing office and program space.
Yan said he believes Americans are ready to delve more deeply into China’s 16 regional cuisines, each of which, Yan said, emphasize not just taste, but appearance, aroma and texture. The newer of his two restaurants, M.Y. China in San Francisco, focuses on home-style cooking from across China, and is “packed every day.”
Food is an integral part of important life events in China, be they moments of grief or happiness, including birthdays, weddings and funerals. More than that, he said, “the Chinese truly believe you are what you eat.”
“Food is part of the holistic approach to health and wellness,” Yan said. “In America, you go to the doctor when you get sick. For Chinese people, in the summer you stay away from certain foods. In the winter, you eat certain things. The Chinese believe medicine and food have the same root.”
Yan, who got his start by teaching cooking classes to pay for his studies at UCD, jokes that he’s been a student at the campus for 35 years. He has given lectures, a commencement address and led alumni trips to China. His wife, Susan Yashimura, is also a UCD grad. His son Colin is an undergraduate now.
It’s particularly fitting that an institute focused on food should carry the name of Confucius (551-479 B.C.), Yan said:
“Confucius always said you do not eat when it’s not in season, you do not eat when it’s not fresh. Confucius is not only a philosopher, an educator, but also a gourmand. He understands that if you respect food, you respect the environment.
“So even thousands of years ago, Confucius already was telling people, don’t waste food, recycle, never eat food that’s not clean. Confucius understands food. Confucius, really, is a food scientist and an educator of food and beverage.”
— Reach Cory Golden at [email protected] or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden