During this time of Covid-19 and all its ramifications, it’s comforting to hear the inspiring story of Cecilia Chiang, a still-vital culinary icon who most recently celebrated her 100th birthday.
Cecilia Chiang, credited with introducing Americans to authentic Chinese cuisine and hailed as “the Julia Child of Chinese food” by acclaimed chef Alice Waters, is a great American success story. Cecilia is still as engaging today as when we first became friends back in the 1970s. She celebrated her 100th birthday with a spectacular party in San Francisco.
Opened in 1961, Cecilia’s legendary San Francisco restaurant, the Mandarin, was arguably the best Chinese restaurant in the U.S. for over 30 years. Today, she continues to inspire everyone from friends and colleagues to top chefs and restaurateurs the world over. She challenged the American idea of Chinese food and transformed our appreciation for authentic cuisine whatever its origin.
CHIANG HONORED WITH A JAMES BEARD LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Cecilia Chiang has enjoyed many extraordinary honors, and I was thrilled to be there for one of the greatest in 2013, when, at age 93, she received the long overdue Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Awards, known as the “Culinary Oscars” at New York’s Lincoln Center.
James Beard was a well-known cook, author, and teacher who hosted I Love to Eat, one of the first televised cooking shows, on NBC in 1946. The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to “an individual whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, and/or think about food in America.” Cecilia considers it her legacy to have redefined what Americans know about Chinese food and culture.
During the James Beard Awards ceremony, we watched a moving short film about Cecilia’s life and achievements:
OUR LONGTIME FRIENDSHIP
Cecilia and I met through my cooking series Cuisines Around the World, which aired on KCSM-TV in the late 1970s and showcased acclaimed chefs demonstrating how to prepare international dishes. I invited her to discuss Chinese cuisine, and so began our longtime friendship.
My admiration for her has only grown, as she’s an inspiration to us all on how to be passionately involved in life and the things you love, regardless of your age.
At 100, Cecilia maintains an active social life, dining or visiting with friends almost daily. “It’s very important, especially when you’re getting older, to have really good friends,” she says. She keeps up with what’s new, what’s best, and what the culinary world is gossiping about. Because she’s always laughing and is a hypnotic storyteller, she’s much in demand as a table companion.
A few years ago, Cecilia Chiang and Jeanne Lawrence, with friends, took a gourmet tour of Asia and dined at the best restaurants and local eateries in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
EARLY CHILDHOOD IN CHINA
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 familyenjoyed 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.
STARTING A BUSINESS IN AMERICA
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.”
THE MANDARIN’S RAVE REVIEWS
The Mandarin took off when the late Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle’s legendary columnist, heard people raving about the restaurant. Always in search of the best, he and restaurateur Victor Bergeron, of Trader Vic’s fame, brought in their crowd, and Cecilia’s reputation was established. Caen exclaimed that the Mandarin served “the best Chinese food east of the Pacific.”
In 1968, Cecilia achieved her dream after bravely moving the Mandarin to a glamorous, larger space in Ghirardelli Square, site of the former Ghirardelli chocolate factory near Fisherman’s Wharf with views of the bay.
It would prove to be a huge success—and the secret ingredient was Madame Chiang herself. She sold the Mandarin in 1991, much to her clientele’s dismay, and its closing in 2006 was a big loss to the Bay Area and the culinary world at large.
CELEBRITIES FLOCK TO THE MANDARIN, AND CECILIA BECOMES A STAR HERSELF
Throughout her career in San Francisco, Cecilia developed friendships with the city’s power brokers and earned the adoration of locals, the food world, and the many luminaries who passed through the Mandarin’s doors, including the Kennedys, the Bushes, Henry Kissinger, bandmembers of Jefferson Airplane, and Yoko Ono and John Lennon, among others. In 1974, she opened a Mandarin in Beverly Hills that continued to attract celebrities and a chic crowd.
Among Cecilia’s celebrity fans was James Beard, whom she met in the 1960s when he dined at the Mandarin. Beard was so impressed by her regional Chinese dishes that he even took her cooking classes, along with many other venerable colleagues, including Alice Waters, Julia Child, Marion Cunningham, Jeremiah Tower, Danny Kaye, Chuck Williams (of Williams-Sonoma)—and also me! I hope I still have her recipes.
SOUL OF A BANQUET, A BIOGRAPHICAL DOCUMENTARY
In 2014, Wayne Wang (director of, among other films, The Joy Luck Club , adapted from Amy Tan’s bestselling book) released Soul of a Banquet, a documentary about Cecilia. She is surely among the last to have living memory of Chinese life and cuisine of the past century.
Soul of a Banquet focuses on a Chinese banquet that Cecilia prepared at home to honor Alice Waters and the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, her groundbreaking Berkeley restaurant. In it, Cecilia recalls compelling moments of her life story, including memories of the losses her family suffered during China’s Cultural Revolution.
CELEBRATON DINNER AT YANK SING
To celebrate the release of the film Soul of a Banquet, Cecilia was feted at San Francisco’s Yank Sing, famous for its dim sum. On the menu: the classic dishes I remembered from the Mandarin that she prepares in the film.
HONORING CECILIA IN NEW YORK AT A CHINESE TEA
Cecilia and her entourage flew to Manhattan for the opening of Soul of a Banquet, and to attend several dinners and events in her honor, including a tea party at my home to introduce her to my East Coast friends.
When I noticed that multiple guests were asking her the same questions, I sat her in the center of the room to tell her remarkable journey. She charmed the guests, who still refer to the event fondly.
THE KITCHEN WISDOM OF CECILIA CHIANG SHOWCASES A CENTURY OF KNOWLEDGE
In 2016, at age 96, PBS released The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang, a television miniseries produced by Charlie Pinsky (Frappé Productions). I was one of the sponsors and my daughter Stephanie was a production assistant. Cecilia has almost a century’s worth of wisdom, knowledge, and palate of authentic Chinese food like no other, which needs to be passed on to future generations.
Part documentary and part cooking show, each episode paired the 96-year-old with younger Bay Area chefs, making classic Chinese dishes and sharing life stories. Guest chefs included Corey Lee (Benu,) Belinda Leong (b. Patisserie), Laurence Jossel (Nopa), Nancy Oakes (Boulevard), Keiko Takahashi (Keiko à Nob Hill), and Gary Danko. Other chefs, such as Tyler Florence, Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters, and Michael Bauer, also made appearances.
Cecilia’s interests go beyond the culinary. She’s involved in Bay Area cultural events, as well as with the Chinese-American community, in which she’s celebrated as a great immigration success story.
She was warmly received when we attended the San Francisco Opera world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber, an adaptation of a classic 18th century Chinese novel, as well known in China as Romeo and Juliet in the West.
CELEBRATING CECILIA’S 98TH BIRTHDAY AT CHINA LIVE
Because Cecilia’s fans are so numerous, her birthdays have always been cause for celebration. For her 98th, longtime friends George and Cindy Chen hosted an unforgettable party at their hotspot China Live in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which opened in 2018.
China Live is the successful culmination of a lifelong dream. George has opened 16 restaurants, such as Betelnut, Shanghai 1930, Xanadu, and Roosevelt Prime Steakhouse in Shanghai, where I first met him while I was living there. But his dream was to own a Chinese restaurant that elevated Chinese cuisine and was inspired by Cecilia, which San Francisco was sorely lacking.
CELEBRATNG A CENTURY OF GOOD LIVING
At Cecilia’s 98th birthday celebration, Corey Lee, chef/owner of 3-Michelin-star Benu restaurant, said he would host her 100th birthday—and he kept his promise. For her 100th birthday party, a crowd of family members, lifelong friends, and celebrity admirers celebrated the occasion at Benu (one of Cecilia’s favorites), known for its innovative fusion of Western and Asian flavors.
Lee trained at Thomas Keller’s 3-Michelin-star French Laundry (Napa Valley) and Per Se (New York). Like Keller, Lee is a perfectionist. He opened Benu in 2010, and by 2014 it too received a 3-Michelin-star rating and a reputation as one of the hottest spots in town.
Photography by Frank Jang, Jeanne Lawrence, Teresa Lok,Drew Altizer, Cecilia Chiang Archives, James Beard Foundation, San Francisco Opera, and courtesy SF History Center, SF Public Library.