Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang
—The Mother of Authentic Chinese Food
We’d like to lead off the start of Women's History Month with the ever-inspiring late Cecilia Chiang. She passed away last October at 100 years young, but her incredible life -- from accidental restaurateur to culinary pioneer -- reaches far beyond food. Cecilia synthesized a new narrative for the 20th century Chinese-American, and was one of historical figures of Chinese culture in San Francisco. We are so honored to feature her as our first woman for Women’s History Month.
Who was Cecilia Chiang?
Today, foods such as dumplings, hot and sour soup, and peking duck are ubiquitously loved and known, so it is often difficult for most Americans to grasp the state of Chinese cuisine prior to 1959 when Chiang arrived in California.
Cecilia serving customers at the Mandarin, the San Francisco restaurant she owned and operated for 30 years (1970s).
It wasn’t always Cecilia's intention to acquire the title “grandmother (sometimes mother) of Chinese food.” However, by making the most of her situation, and her relentless efforts to introduce and educate America on authentic Chinese flavors, she earned the name.
In an interview with PBS she recounts walking at the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown, gawking at the restaurants and asking her sister:
These observations coupled with unforeseen circumstances would guide her to become a Chinese female entrepreneur and live out a culinary career that most chefs would envy! For her time, she stood out as a rarity! She came up through a time when even white American women were still typecast as happy wives, and the only jobs available to them outside the home were as teachers, secretaries and nurses.
While Cecilia grew up with immense familial wealth, and is now a recognized as culinary royalty in San Francisco, much of her origin story derived from unfortunate circumstances.
Early Childhood in China
Born in 1920 near Shanghai, Cecilia was raised in Beijing (which before Mao was called Peking) as the 7th daughter in an affluent family of twelve children. The family's wealthy allowed them to have 14 servants and two cooks for the household. Young Cecilia was barred from the kitchen, as the cooks prepared Shanghai-style and Northern Mandarin-style cuisine for the family. Consequently, she learned about food at the dinner table, where dinners were multi-course events, often heavily discussed.
Shanghai had fallen to Japan in 1942 and the Chiang family lost everything! Cecilia was forced to flee her home, and her and one of sisters escaped the invaded city by walking for five and half months to Chongqing where they connected with a relative. Through her laborious migration, she learned about seasonal ingredients, and learned that each province had their own regional cooking style and unique cooking techniques. For instance, while in Hunan, she recalls learning that the people were so poor they couldn't afford oil, but instead they mastered the technique of cooking with water or steaming.
Map of China: Image: EurAsia Review News & Analysis
Her culinary education continued post-war in Japan, when she moved to Tokyo with her husband and two children. Here, she observed professional chefs prep and serve up some of the most incredible dishes. Even with this exposure, she still had limited skills of cooking which inspired her and her cousins to open a small restaurant called “Forbidden City.” She opened up this neighborhood favorite “because nobody knows how to cook dinner so I and some cousins decided to open a Chinese restaurant so we can bring the children, friends and family” as she told in a PBS interview.
Coincidence and Abandonment
In 1960, her sister sent for her in a letter with the news that her brother-in-law just died. She left her family in Tokyo, and moved to San Francisco to support her newly widowed sister. While walking through Chinatown, she happened upon two women she recognized from Japan. They revealed their plans to open a Chinese restaurant, and knowing the success Chiang had with “The Forbidden City,” they asked her for help. They claimed they specifically needed her English speaking skills to finalize a rental agreement with their landlord. At the renters’ meeting, the landlord pressured the women to sign the deal, explaining that there were other parties interested. The two aspiring “entrepreneurs” had no money to their names, but promised to pay Cecilia back if she put down the initial deposit. Chiang was hesitant, but ultimately agreed to help her reacquainted friends. Shortly after, the women backed out of the plan altogether leaving Chiang in a lurch. Chiang articulates the unfortunate reality she faced:
“What am I supposed to do? My husband, my children, they’re all in Tokyo. I’m here, opening a restaurant? That’s really kind of crazy. And I don’t know anybody. I tried to sell it, sublease it. I cannot.
So Cecilia decided she was going to open a restaurant. She was to open an establishment during a time when American-Chinese food was cheap and adulterated into items unrecognizable to the native Chinese tongue. She set out to redefine Chinese cuisine, showcasing what she knew to be Chinese food!
Restaurant Success & How It Came To Be
The Mandarin opened on Polk Street in 1961, and quickly outgrew the 55-seat space. By 1975, they relocated to a 300-seat space in Ghirardelli Square, and opened another Mandarin restaurant in Beverly Hills, California.
The restaurant's centerpiece was a Mongolian grill table, inspired by outdoor fire pits (1970s).
However, it wasn’t instant success for Chiang, there were years of struggle for the small team with Chiang operating as janitor, food buyer, and dishwasher. In those early days, Cecilia faced backlash from the local Cantonese suppliers because she spoke Mandarin and was seen as “Mainlander” or an outsider. They refused to extend her a line of credit or deliver to her restaurant, still, her spirit could not be broken! She created the original menu of over 200 items by putting down every dish she could remember eating as a child. Eventually, she narrowed down the menu based on what people gravitated to and disliked.
Cecilia's menu at the Mandarin is credited with introducing an array of Chinese specialities to the US for the first time (1982).
Then overnight, The Mandarin erupted with phone calls for reservations and customers after the popular columnist for The Chronicle, Herb Caen, gave The Mandarin raving reviews.
What captivated the writer was the taste of the potstickers, exclaiming he had never eaten anything like it before, and in such an elegant atmosphere. Caen’s review launched the success of The Mandarin and Cecilia Chiang along with it.
In a more recent profile of Ms. Chiang in 2007, The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that her restaurant “outlined upscale Chinese eating, introducing clients to Sichuan dishes like kung pao hen and twice-cooked pork, and to subtle preparations like minced squab in lettuce cups; tea-smoked duck; and beggar’s hen, an entire fowl filled with dried mushrooms, water chestnuts and ham and baked in clay.”
The restaurant became a favorite destination among Hollywood’s elite, and Cecilia also taught cooking classes with star-students like Alice Waters. She later sold her restaurant to her son Philip in 1989 who would go on to found the restaurant chain P.F Chang's. She published two cookbooks: The Mandarin Way and The Seventh Daughter, and inspired the Wayne Wagne documentary “Soul of a Banquet” about her life. In 2013, she won the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement award, but this bubbling woman doesn't stop there!
Cecilia's first book, The Mandarin Way
An Ode to Personality
Her incredible perseverance, career success and inspiring story of culinary excellence aside, Cecilia Chiang was known to have radiated style that accompanied her youthful spirit, uplifting those around her.
Alice Waters described a time learning from Cecilia, "If you’ve never tried a dish, Cecilia will tell you a story about that dish and you'll end up wanting to try it." She had that type of power!
In a piece written by Michael Bauer for Saveur magazine, “At the age of 93, Cecilia Chiang has the energy of a 30-year-old."
She'd dine out with friends often, and still indulge in libations after finishing dinner. Writer, Bauer, recounts the two of them stopping by the Park Tavern in San Francisco..."with her eyes twinkling more than the jeweled brooch on her blue Mandarin-style jacket, Cecilia surveyed the room and said, 'I love crowded bars. They make me feel so alive.'"
"Ms. Chiang had achieved for Chinese delicacies what Julia Child had achieved for the cooking of France."
Life and Longevity
Cecilia passed at 100 years old, but even at the age of 94 was still active and mentoring younger chefs in the industry. She was known for her boundless vitality, and people would ask her for her secret to a long life. “What’s the secret?”
She said first and foremost I must "thank my ancestors. We have good genes. My father died at 98 during the Cultural Revolution. My mother died at 94. Those days in China, most people don’t know how poor they were. My father got a little bottle of this much cooking oil a week: everything was on ration. We were so poor. My father wasn’t sick; they just starved to death, there was no food. Most people don’t know all these things. I think I’m very lucky I have good genes."
She also loved to stay interested and busy with her plants and flower care. Even into her 90's she'd keep herself busy with planting, fertilizing and pruning them back, all by herself. And lastly, her philosophy of her life was moderation. She believed to "never overeat, or never over-drink. Never overdo it." (1000% the TCM way!)
It is no doubt that she will be incredibly missed by everyone who knew her and by the culinary world in general, but her legacy in revolutionizing the American culinary palate to appreciate authentic Chinese flavors and cuisines will certainly live on.