Cecilia Chiang, who brought authentic Chinese food to America, dies at 100

Oct 29, 2020 Travel News

Cecilia Chiang, who brought authentic Chinese food to America, dies at 100

Cecilia Chiang, whose San Francisco restaurant, Mandarin, introduced American customers in the 1960s to the richness and variety of authentic Chinese cuisine, died Wednesday at her home in San Francisco. She was 100 years old.

His granddaughter Siena Chiang has confirmed the death.

Ms Chiang came to the United States from China as a wealthy girl who fled the Japanese during World War II, walking nearly 700 miles. Once in San Francisco, she proceeded, largely by accident and almost on her own, to take Chinese cuisine from the era of chop suey and chow mein to the more refined of today, appealing to diners with the dishes she ate growing up in her family’s converted home. Beijing Ming Era Palace.

The Mandarin, which opened in 1962 as a 65-seat restaurant on Polk Street in the Russian Hill section and then operated in Ghirardelli Square near Fisherman’s Wharf, offered its customers specialties unheard of at the time, such as potstickers, dry spices à la Chongqing. -Grated beef, Sichuan peppery eggplant, moo shu pork, sizzling rice soup and glazed bananas.

It was traditional mandarin cuisine, a catch-all term for the dining style of the well-to-do in Beijing, where heads of families prepared local dishes as well as regional specialties from Sichuan, Shanghai and Canton.

In a profile of Ms. Chiang in 2007, The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that her restaurant “defined high-end Chinese cuisine, introducing customers to Sichuan dishes like kung pao chicken and twice-cooked pork, and fine preparations. like chopped squab in lettuce cups; smoked duck with tea; and the beggar’s chicken, a whole bird stuffed with dried mushrooms, water chestnuts and ham and baked in clay.

The restaurant has become a sanctuary for culinary luminaries such as James Beard, Marion Cunningham and Alice Waters, who have said that Ms Chiang has done for Chinese cuisine what Julia Child has done for French cuisine.

This sentiment was echoed by gourmet magazine Saveur in 2000, when it wrote that Mandarin had “accomplished nothing less than bringing regional Chinese cuisine to America.”

Food specialist Paul Freedman included Mandarin in his landmark survey “Ten Restaurants That Changed America” (2016).

Like Ms. Child, Ms. Chiang was not a chef, nor a likely candidate to run a restaurant. She was born Sun Yun near Shanghai in 1920 – the exact date is not clear – the seventh daughter in a family of nine girls and three boys. His father, Sun Long Guang, was a French-trained railway engineer who retired at age 50 to continue reading and gardening. His mother, Sun Shueh Yun Hui, came from a wealthy family who owned textile and flour mills. After her parents died, Sun Yun handled the finances of the company when she was still a teenager.

The Ming-era palace in which she grew up occupied an entire city block in Beijing, where the Chiangs moved in the mid-1920s. Children were not allowed into the kitchen, but she lent a careful attention to trips to food markets with her mother and listened intently to the detailed instructions given to the cooks.

After the Japanese occupied Beijing in 1939, the family’s fortunes became precarious. In early 1943, Cecilia, as her professors at Fu Jen Roman Catholic University called her, left to join relatives in Chongqing.

During her long journey, largely on foot, she survived with a few gold coins sewn into her clothes, her only assets after Japanese soldiers stole her suitcase.

In Chongqing, she found a part-time job as a Mandarin teacher in the American and Soviet embassies. She also met and married Chiang Liang, whom she had known as a professor of economics at Fu Jen University and who was then an executive of a tobacco company.

The couple moved to Shanghai after the war. In 1949, as Communist forces prepared to take control of China, Mr. Chiang was offered a diplomatic post in Tokyo at the Chinese Nationalist Mission.

Two years after arriving in Tokyo, Ms. Chiang opened a Chinese restaurant, the Forbidden City, with a group of friends. It was an instant success, also attracting Chinese expats and Japanese diners.

Ms. Chiang sailed to San Francisco in 1960 to help her sister Sun, whose husband had just died. There she met two Chinese acquaintances from Tokyo, women who had recently emigrated to the United States and who wanted to open a restaurant. Ms. Chiang agreed to put $ 10,000 on deposit at a store they found on Polk Street, far from the city’s Chinatown.

When the two women withdrew, Ms. Chiang was horrified that the deposit was not refundable. She took a deep breath and decided to open the restaurant on her own rather than telling her husband that she had lost the money.

“I started to think that if I could create a restaurant with Western-style service and ambiance and the dishes I knew the most – the delicious food from North China – maybe my little restaurant would be successful.” , she wrote in the second of her two cookbook memoirs, “The Seventh Girl: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco” (2007, written with Lisa Weiss). The first was “The Mandarin Way” (1974, with Allan Carr).

Through a newspaper ad, Ms. Chiang found two talented chefs, a married couple from Shandong, and in no time the restaurant was up and running. The beginnings were difficult. The local suppliers, who all spoke Cantonese, refused to deliver in Mandarin and did not give credit. The menu, with 200 dishes, was unmanageable. Mrs. Chiang, running out of help, cleaned the kitchen floor herself.

But little by little, Chinese diners, and a few Americans, came regularly for hot, sweet and sour soup and pan-fried potstickers. One evening, Herb Caen, the popular columnist for The Chronicle, had dinner at the restaurant. In a later column, he called it “a little hole in the wall” which served “some of the best Chinese food in the eastern Pacific.”

Overnight, the tables filled. Lines formed outside the door. The Mandarin was on his way. In 1968, Ms. Chiang moved the restaurant to larger neighborhoods on Ghirardelli Square, where it could seat 300 diners and offer cooking classes.

In 1975, she opened a second Mandarin, in Beverly Hills, California. She sold it to her son, Philip, in 1989. He went on to help start the PF Chang restaurant chain. He survives her, as does his daughter, May Ongbhaibulya; three granddaughters; and three great-grandchildren.

Ms. Chiang sold the original Mandarin in 1991. It closed in 2006.

Ms. Chiang continued to work as a catering consultant into her 90s. Director Wayne Wang made a documentary about her, “Soul of a Banquet,” which was released in 2014, and in 2016 San Diego PBS station KPBS aired a six-part series, “The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang” .

“I think I changed what ordinary people know about Chinese cuisine,” Ms. Chiang told The Chronicle in 2007. “They didn’t know China was such a big country.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.