Culture Magazine

Cecilia Chiang, “the Julia Child of Chinese Food”, Turns 100

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

Jeanne Lawrence, San Francisco Social Diary: A Century Of Good Taste — The Life of Culinary Icon Cecilia Chiang, New York Social Diary, June 30, 2020:
Born in 1920 (Chinese year of the Monkey) near Shanghai, Cecilia was raised in Beijing (which before Mao was called Peking) in a wealthy family of twelve children (nine daughters and three sons). As a child, Cecilia was not allowed in the kitchen, as two cooks prepared Shanghai-style and Northern Mandarin-style cuisine for the family. She learned about food at the dinner table, where each dish in elaborate, multi-course meals was discussed and critiqued.
Cecilia’s privileged life came to an end in 1942, when she and a sister fled the Japanese occupation with an arduous thousand-mile, six-month trek (on foot!) from Beijing to Chongqing. She resettled in Shanghai, where, as a young woman, she met her husband and raised her children, May and Philip. The family enjoyed the sophisticated and dynamic Shanghai life when the city was booming. However, that all came to an end in 1949, when she fled from China to Japan during the Communist Revolution.
In 1959, Cecilia traveled to San Francisco to visit her recently widowed sister for what was meant to be a brief stay. She stayed and in l961, through a series of chance encounters, opened a Chinese restaurant on Polk Street that she named the Mandarin.
At this 65-seat “hole in the wall,” she introduced the American palate to authentic Northern Chinese cuisine from cities such as Shanghai and Beijing and the provinces of Sichuan and Hunan. Her menus were starkly different from the Americanized dishes that populated Chinese restaurants at the time, such as chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young.
Looking back today, Cecilia says, “Maybe I was naïve about venturing into entrepreneurship in a new country, as an immigrant and in an industry dominated by men.” In her first restaurant, she wore many hats: hostess, reservationist, food procurer, waiter—even busboy! Granddaughter Siena Chiang credits her grandmother’s success to grit, luck, and “an uncanny sense for good food.”

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog