San Francisco Social Diary : Culinary Icon Cecilia Chiang at 94

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Cecilia Chiang accepting her 2013 James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in New York City.

This has been a banner year for San Francisco culinary legend Cecilia Chiang, still gracious and energetic at 94. She received the 2013 James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award in New York City and was the subject of the biographical documentary Soul of a Banquet, which premiered in San Francisco.

Often credited with introducing Americans to authentic Chinese cuisine and hailed as “the Julia Child of Chinese food” by chef Alice Waters, Chiang is the founder of legendary San Francisco Chinese restaurant The Mandarin, which remained under her stewardship from 1961 to 1991.

L. to r.: Cecilia Chiang with her son Philip Chiang, founder of the popular chain, P. F. Chang Chinese Bistro, at the James Beard Awards Ceremony.; Cecilia Chiang accepted her James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award in an authentic Qing-era red brocade qipao.


This spring in San Francisco, restaurateurs Cecilia Chiang and Alice Waters and food writer Ruth Reichl were the star attractions at the premiere of director Wayne Wang‘s biographical documentary about Chiang, Soul of a Banquet, an idea generated by Waters.

The film culminates with the 2011 banquet Chiang prepared in her home to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Waters’ famed Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse.

Culinary icons Chiang and Waters, here in a scene from director Wayne Wang’s documentary, Soul of a Banquet, both changed America’s food tastes and style.
The evening’s hosts: Ruth Reichl, Cecilia Chiang, and Alice Waters, who was named Best Chef in America by the James Beard Foundation in 1992 and won the James Beard Humanitarian Award in 1997.
Alice Waters with former Chez Panisse chef David Tanis and Jeanne Lawrence. Waters became a giant force on the American food scene when she founded the farm-to-table dining movement upon opening Chez Panisse in 1971.
Ruth Reichl, former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and restaurant critic for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, also features prominently in the film.
Chiang speaks English in the beginning of the film, but reverts to her native Chinese (Mandarin dialect) to more fully express the emotional parts of her story.
Director Wayne Wang with Soul of a Banquet executive producer Jonathan Bing.
Best known for directing the film The Joy Luck Club (1993), based on Amy Tan’s best-seller, Wayne Wang was an ideal choice to direct the documentary celebrating Asian-American food.
Chiang’s granddaughter Alisa Chiang, author Amy Tan, Cecilia Chiang, and Chiang’s niece Ping Chen Chiang.
I was delighted to reconnect with Chiang, who appeared as a guest on a cooking show I hosted on KCBS TV (way back when!).


Soul of a Banquet traces the life of Shanghai-born and Beijing-raised Chiang from her days in China, to Japan and finally San Francisco, where she opened The Mandarin restaurant in the 1960s.

Chiang has written a memoir, The Mandarin Way (Little Brown, 1974), and an autobiography with recipes, The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco (Ten Speed Press, 2007).
L. to r.: As a child in Beijing, Chiang was not allowed in the kitchen, where the family had one cook from the north and one from Shanghai, but she learned about food at the dinner table, where each dish in elaborate multi-course meals was critiqued. ; Chiang escaped Beijing during the Japanese occupation in 1942, traveled throughout China, and in l949 fled to Japan during the Communist takeover.
Chiang was the seventh daughter in an upper-class family of ten children; pictured here are eight of the daughters, one brother, Mom and Dad, and sister number two’s husband and daughter, at home in Beijing.
In 1960, Chiang visited a widowed sister in San Francisco, settled there, and began her career in the restaurant business.
As a new immigrant to San Francisco, Chiang says she was treated like a foreigner in the Chinese community, as she spoke Mandarin while most spoke the southern Cantonese dialect.


The Seventh Daughter relates the amazing story of Chiang’s chance entry into the restaurant business beginning with a little 65-seat “hole in the wall” on Polk Street in the 1960s.

When the late Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle‘s legendary columnist, heard people raving about The Mandarin, he and restaurateur Victor Bergeron, of Trader Vic’s, brought in their crowd, and Chiang’s reputation was established.

The Mandarin introduced Americans to authentic Chinese cuisine from Shanghai, Sichuan, and Beijing, all places Chiang had lived.


In 1968, Chiang took the brave step of opening a glamorous 300-seat Mandarin restaurant in Ghirardelli Square (site of the former chocolate factory), which she oversaw for 23 years. When it closed in 2006, it was a big loss to the city and the Chinese culinary world.

Ghirardelli Square, where The Mandarin once stood.
The elegant interior of The Mandarin’s second location was a far cry from the typical Chinese takeout joint.
Chiang helmed The Mandarin until 1991, at which point she sold it and retired.


Chiang says that few professional Chinese chefs were migrating to America’s Chinatowns (in San Francisco, LA, and New York). In response to the immigrants’ nostalgia for their native dishes, cooks came up with Chinese-American improvisations like egg foo young and chop suey.

L. to r.: With The Mandarin, Chiang revolutionized Chinese food in America, refusing to serve inauthentic dishes she regarded as peasant food created by non-professionals. Instead, she cooked the northern Chinese dishes of her childhood. ; The most popular dishes were the Peking duck and tea-smoked duck, pan-fried dumplings, spring rolls, beggar’s chicken, and Sichuan spicy eggplant. (My mouth is watering as I write this.)
A successful entrepreneur in addition to being a fabulous cook, Chiang led The Mandarin’s kitchen, oversaw the food quality, and helped her guests navigate the exotic menu.


Chiang’s reputation was cemented. Celebrities, the social crowd, locals—everyone from Jackie Kennedy to Mick Jagger—came to dine at the Mandarin. Likewise, the big names in the food world came to assess the highly touted cuisine and pay homage to the spectacular chef.

Chiang additionally gave cooking lessons, and her students included such venerable colleagues as James Beard, Alice Waters, Julia Child, Marion Cunningham, Jeremiah Tower, Danny Kaye, Chuck Williams (of Williams-Sonoma), and also me.

Cecilia Chiang with her close friend, the late chef and food writer James Beard, in the 1970s. Though he was famously dedicated to American cuisine, “he really loved Chinese food,” Chiang recalled, “as his mother had hired a Chinese chef to cook for the family.”
James Beard and Cecilia Chiang (center). Sadly, Beard didn’t live to see his friend receive the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award, given to those who make “a long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, and/or think about food in America.” He would have been proud of her.

The Mandarin was one of my favorite places to entertain guests, especially out-of-towners. Elegant Cecilia, dressed in her qipao and fine jewelry, was always there to keep an eye on every detail and help guests with the menu. The secret of her success was Cecilia Chiang herself.

In its day, The Mandarin was the most elegant, glamorous, and unquestionably the best Chinese restaurant in San Francisco—and perhaps in America.


An added enticement for the Soul of a Banquet event was a Chinese banquet at Yank Sing restaurant, famous for its dim sum lunches, benefitting the San Francisco Film Society and Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard Project.

Located in Rincon Center, the historic former post office building, the Chinese restaurant Yank Sing was founded in 1958 by Alice Chan, a friend of Chiang’s for many years.
Yank Sing has been described by Zagat as “the pinnacle of San Francisco dim sum.”
Cecilia Chiang welcomed guests to the banquet. As I expected, it was a total winner of an evening, especially the food.


It was almost torture watching Chiang prepare a delicious-looking multi-course Chinese banquet in the film before we had dinner. But we were rewarded with a divine meal. The food was just as spectacular as I remembered from the “good old days” of The Mandarin.

The meal began with cold dishes, including Spinach & Bean Curd Salad, Fresh Bamboo Shoots, Wok-Tossed Asparagus with Ginkgo Nuts, Oyster Sauce Double Mushroom, Black Wood Ear with Goji Berry, and Five-Spice Peanuts.
Next we were served an array of hot foods, including the delicious Candied Walnut Prawns (shown here) and Virginia Ham with Poached Chicken over Gai Lai.
The Szechuan dish Tea-Smoked Duck involves smoking a marinated duck over tea leaves and twigs of the camphor plant.
We also enjoyed a favorite of Chiang’s mother, Red Cooked Pork Belly with Bun.
The last entrée was Sweet and Sour Crispy Rock Cod with Pine Nuts. Fish have symbolic significance in China, because the word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for riches or abundance.


Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, director of such revered films as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, was among the guests at the film premiere and Yank Sing banquet.
Carolyn Ferris, Doug Biederbeck, owner of BIX restaurant and supper club, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and Kim Bachmann.
Alice Waters and Jeanne Lawrence.
Michael Murphy, William Lee, and Jennifer Chen-Manwell.
Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society Ted Hope.
Cecilia Chiang, back at the helm to recreate some of her specialty dishes, gave Chef Andy Tsai the “thumbs up.”


Soul of a Banquet makes the point that preparation—clean, precise chopping—is the most important part of Chinese cooking. “Cut it fine, else it doesn’t taste good,” Chiang admonished.

“My mother’s recipes weren’t fancy,” she continued. “They were simple and tasty home cooking. What’s important is the uniform slicing. But after that, cooking is quick, often done in a wok.”

“People today don’t want to spend time to create a ‘culture of the table,'” she lamented. “I love an eating culture, and I so miss the food and hospitality that don’t exist any more.”

Cecilia Chang is still a charming and energetic hostess. When she left the business, she left a great void, not just personally but for lovers of fine, authentic Chinese food. Count me among those who sorely miss Madame Chiang and The Mandarin!

The annual James Beard Foundation Awards took place in New York at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, across from the Opera House.


At the banquet, I learned that Cecilia Chiang was about to travel to New York to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 23rd annual James Beard Foundation Awards, the Academy Awards of the food world.

When I discovered how many other California chefs and friends from the Bay Area were nominees, I decided to go as well. Though I love the culinary arts, it would be my first visit to this event.

The Awards attract hundreds of culinary stars and their admirers from around the country. The chefs weren’t always immediately recognizable since they were out of their customary whites and in glamorous gowns and proper tuxedos.


The 2013 Beard Awards theme—Lights! Camera! Taste!—celebrated the role food has played in American film.

Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center was packed with some of the brightest stars of the restaurant world, there to support colleagues or in contention for honors of their own.

James Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro welcomed the crowd.
Television and stage actor Oliver Platt (brother of New York Magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt) made his debut as host.
Julian Niccolini (right), co-owner of the Four Seasons Restaurant, joined his pal, restaurateur-chef Mario Batali, in sporting Batali’s signature orange Crocs.
Andrew Sneyd (left) of sponsor Stella Artois, with acclaimed chef Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Per Se, Bouchon). Keller served as consultant and voiced a small role in Ratatouille, one of host Oliver Platt’s favorite food movies.
Tim Brown of sponsor Nestle Waters with domestic diva Martha Stewart.


Chef Gary Danko, of the eponymous San Francisco restaurant, was one of many who lobbied to honor Chiang for her 30 years as a restaurateur and for changing Americans’ view about Chinese food.

“I’m going to be 94. I never expected this. It just goes to show what happens if you live long enough,” marveled Madame Chiang during her acceptance speech.

Cecilia Chiang wore red, a lucky color in Chinese culture, to accept her Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Beard Awards presented a moving short film about Chiang’s life and achievements:

Chiang offered some final advice: “Be honest in what you do and say, including hard work. Care about people. Make guests happy and bring joy to people in life.”


There was a long list of Bay Area and Wine Country chef and restaurant winners:

Rising Star Chef of the Year was awarded to Danny Bowien of San Francisco and (as of 2012) New York’s Mission Chinese Food.
Best New Restaurant went to San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions; Chefs Nicole Krasinskil and Stuart Brioza accepted the award.
Christopher Kostow, of The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena’s Meadowood Resort, took Best Regional Chef–West.

Though New York-based Jonathan Waxman (Barbuto, in the West Village) was nominated for Best Regional Chef–NYC, we claim the Berkeley-raised chef as a Californian.


If you’re traveling to New York, you might like to check out the restaurants and chefs there that were honored with James Beard Awards.

Wylie Dufresne, of wd~50 on NY’s Lower East Side (and the recently opened Alder), won the regional award for Best Chef–New York City.
New York darling David Chang (at podium), of the East Village’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, tied with Paul Kahan (left), of Chicago’s Blackbird, for Outstanding Chef.
Mario Batali’s Del Posto won for Outstanding Service, and the restaurant’s Brooks Headley (pictured here) won the honor for Best Pastry Chef. I was amazed to learn that more than 200 people work in the kitchen of this Italian restaurant in the Meatpacking District.
Outstanding Restaurant went to Greenwich Village farm-to-table standout Blue Hill. Chef David Barber said the kitchen staff has more than 100 years of experience among them.
Outstanding Restaurateur winner was the chic Maguy Le Coze of New York’s haute cuisine favorite Le Bernardin, who said how touched she was to be the first woman so honored.
New Orleans’ Emeril Lagasse won Humanitarian of the Year for his Emeril Lagasse Foundation, which creates opportunities for disadvantaged children in the U.S.


The awards ceremony was followed by dinner, where guests could sample dishes prepared by well-known chefs and inspired by the movies. Armed with my camera, I went in search of Bay Area attendees.
Jeanne Lawrence with New York restaurateur Sirio Maccioni, of Le Cirque, Circo, and Sirio, and chef Gary Danko.
Young chefs from around the country assisted at the event.
San Franciscan chef Traci des Jardins of Jardinière presented tortilla soup, inspired by the film of the same name. Des Jardins won the JBFA for Best Chef–Pacific Region in 2007 and was named Rising Star Chef of the Year in 1995.
Other California chefs working the event were Thomas McNaughton of SF’s Flour + Water, Melissa Perello of SF’s Frances, Nicole Plue of Sideshow in Healdsburg, California, and Michael Mina of the eponymous restaurants in San Francisco and Las Vegas.
Jeanne Lawrence with Lifetime Achievement Award-winner Cecilia Chiang.
Chiang’s granddaughter, Siena Chiang, with Cecilia Chiang and her son Philip Chiang.
Food & Wine magazine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin with David Chang and his fiancée, Gloria Lee.
VIP guests enjoyed dinner on the balcony overlooking the atrium in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.

Photos by Jeanne Lawrence, Kent Miller, Cecilia Chiang archives, and James Beard Foundation.

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.

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