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.
THE SCREENING AND A BANQUET
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.
THE LIFE OF CECILIA CHIANG
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.
THE FIRST MANDARIN RESTAURANT
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 GOES BIG TIME
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.
SERVING AUTHENTIC CHINESE CUISINE
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.
CHIANG HERSELF BECOMES A STAR
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.
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.
2013 CHINESE BANQUET AT YANK SING RESTAURANT
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.
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.
FRIENDS & GUESTS
CULINARY ADVICE FROM A MASTER
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!
JAMES BEARD AWARDS IN NYC
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 “OSCARS OF THE FOOD WORLD” GO HOLLYWOOD
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.
CECILIA CHIANG ACCEPTS THE LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
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.
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.”
CALIFORNIA WINNERS—A LONG LIST
There was a long list of Bay Area and Wine Country chef and restaurant winners:
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.
NEW YORK JAMES BEARD AWARD WINNERS
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.
CELEBRITY CHEFS COOKED
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.