Su-Mei Yu is the owner of Saffron restaurant in San Diego. She is also an SDSU alumna who earned her Master ’s in Social Work in 1967. Between now and then she has held vastly different professional roles, but there is one characteristic about them all – she is always concerned with healing others
Social work hadn’t been her first choice –she wanted to pursue a career in diplomatic service. But her parents were not too keen on the idea, so she came to the SDSU School of Social Work on the recommendation of a favorite professor, not entirely sure of what a career in social work would entail.
Social work was a challenging field for Yu since some of the basic concepts did not match her cultural upbringing. She notes, “There are alcoholics in Asia, and crazy people who wander the streets. But they aren’t labeled as having a ‘so- cial illness’ – family take care of them. And if they have no family, the community steps in to make sure they are cared for. There weren’t agencies whose job it was to reach out to these people. And the elderly were respected and cared for, so there was no need for agencies to help them.” But in the US, the entire system was different and the underlying assumptions were foreign to me. It took some time for me to understand.”
She graduated and went on to a career in social work, specializing in maternal and child health. For many years she worked in the Ventura County Hospital’s Neonatal ICU. She returned to SDSU in 1979 and taught courses in maternal and child health for the next two years.
She also began working, as a volunteer, with refugees who were coming from Asia. She concentrated on teaching English as a second language courses as a way to help these refugees understand and adjust to life in the United States. That led to starting a non-profit agency to help the women refugees use their skills in handicrafts and cooking to earn a living. The agency was so successful that Catholic Charities soon copied the idea and Yu closed her agency since Catholic Charities could do so much more with the resources they had.
Since she was working with food and cooking with her clients, she decided to open a small restaurant. “I had no idea what I was getting into! It takes so much patience, stamina and mental perseverance every day.” Although the physical demands of running a restaurant are often touted as making this a hard industry, Yu thinks the daily interactions between customers, employees and the public are more challenging. Here is where her background in social work begins to show through.
She is concerned with both the physical and mental health of all of those around her. She has carefully designed her menu to include the most healthful ingredients she can find. She has taken traditional wisdom about the healing properties of certain foods and woven those ingredients into her dishes. She sources her ingredients from local, organic producers as much as possible and she prepares her dishes with healthy preparations. She is currently sharing her knowledge of local suppliers in a KPBS television series, Savor San Diego.
She is even more concerned for the emotional health of both her customers and her employees. She sees her job as helping her staff do their best for the restaurant’s guests so that the staff and guests are happy. She uses the same skills she learned as a social worker to facilitate this – the keen sense of observation and the ability to read people and situations help her anticipate and prevent potential issues, and she trains her staff to do the same.
Preparing food is much more than “just cooking,” she says. It is a way of giving oneself and she tries to inspire her staff to use food to connect with her customers. It must work since she has many regulars at her restaurant and Saffron is frequently listed as one of San Diego’s top restaurants.
For all of the success this attitude brings her restaurant, she really wishes people would cook more at home. She worries that the lack of cooking is reducing people’s connection with one another and their heritage. “Food is a wonderful expression of identity.
It ties people together and is a treasure and a gift from generation to generation. As more and more people rely more heavily on prepared foods, that identity is lost.” She is also worried that, “When people don’t cook, they don’t know as much about where their food comes from and they don’t care as much about how is it raised. If they don’t care about their food, then they are separated from the global community and are less likely to be a caretaker of that community.” This has motivated her to write several cookbooks in hopes of inspiring people to cook at home more.