2013 James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient Cecilia Chiang
Nicole CitronNicole Citron
May 06, 2013
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.
Restaurateur Cecilia Chiang recalls James Beard’s delight after his first meal at her landmark San Francisco Chinese restaurant, The Mandarin, in the early 1960s. “This is so different from what I had before. This is very tasty. What do you call this kind of food?” she remembers him asking. Unlike most Americans at the time, Beard’s experience with Chinese food extended beyond bland, Americanized dishes like chow mein and egg foo young. His Chinese-born childhood housekeeper, Let, had been an accomplished chef whose cooking made a deep impression on Beard at an early age. Even so, the profound flavors in Chiang’s northern Chinese, Shanghai, and Sichuan specialties were unlike anything Beard had ever tasted before.
Authentic, regional dishes such as beggar’s chicken (baked in clay), Sichuan spicy eggplant, tea-smoked duck, and pan-fried jiao zi (potstickers) helped put the Mandarin on the map and made Chiang a culinary icon. Chiang also remembers some of Beard’s favorites: Shanghai red-cooked pork, and chicken gizzard with pork stomach, a dish known as “Two Crispiness” but dubbed “Black and White” by Beard, Chiang says, for the contrasting colors of the gizzard and the stomach.
“Thanks to the Asian Exclusion Act, most Chinese restaurants in America were serving Cantonese peasant food made by noncooks,” explains Ruth Reichl. “Then along came Cecilia, an aristocrat from Shanghai, who taught her chefs to re-create the food that her family chef had made when she was growing up. It was a revelation, and it changed how Americans thought of the cuisine.”
Chiang is rightfully proud of the achievement of her three- decade stewardship of the Mandarin, which she ran from 1961 to 1991. “I wanted to introduce real Chinese food to America. I feel like I did a great job, and now people know there’s a big difference between chop suey and real Chinese food,” she says.
The journey of this nonagenarian food pioneer was not without roadblocks, but Chiang’s early life had primed her in terms of both sophistication and stamina. Born as Sun Yun in 1920, Chiang was the seventh daughter in an upper-class family of ten children. Originally from Shanghai, the family settled in Beijing, where she grew up in a 52-room Ming dynasty palace with two cooks, one who prepared Shanghai food and another who made northern-style dishes. “Our family life took place in the dining room,” she writes in her 2007 memoir-cookbook, The Seventh Daughter (Ten Speed Press).
Two exiles followed that privileged childhood: Chiang and one of her sisters walked 1,000 miles to escape Japanese-occupied Beijing in 1942, and seven years later Chiang fled with her husband and children to Tokyo to escape the communist takeover.
On a visit to San Francisco in 1960 to see her recently widowed sister, Chiang made a mistake that ended up launching her culinary career: she tried to negotiate a restaurant lease for friends and was left on the hook for the $10,000 deposit when the two other women backed out of the deal. Instead of heading home in defeat to her diplomat husband and two young children in Tokyo, she hired northern Chinese husband- and-wife chefs to re-create the dishes she loved, painted the front door red, and opened the Mandarin on Polk Street. From then on she called the Bay Area home, and her children joined her in San Francisco in 1962.
At first, just getting authentic ingredients like sesame oil and shark fin required trips to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. And in the beginning Chiang spoke little English and no Cantonese, the language of most Chinese immigrants, who in turn spoke no Mandarin. “It was not easy,” Chiang remembers.
“Also, I’m a woman. At that time it was very hard to compete with men. Especially in Chinese restaurants, where all the owners were men.” She faced another layer of bias as well: “In those days, Chinese people here had a hard time. People really looked down on you.”
Business was slow the first year, until San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen’s rave review filled the 65-seat “little hole- in-the-wall” nightly. In 1968 Chiang moved to an elegant, larger venue in Ghirardelli Square that epitomized upscale Chinese cuisine for the next 23 years.
“The Mandarin was the first restaurant—or certainly the first restaurant that received media attention—to serve northern Chinese food to non-Chinese patrons,” says Yale historian Paul Freedman, who is writing a book about ten influential restaurants, including the Mandarin, that changed the way America eats. Freedman points not only to the Mandarin’s cuisine, but also to its uniquely elegant ambience. “San Francisco had a few fancy Chinese restaurants, but they had what passed for ‘Chinese’ decor—dragons, red and gold, Buddhas. The Mandarin was a more airy space with beautiful views of the Bay.”
There, Chiang entertained celebrities from Jefferson Airplane band members to Henry Kissinger, and taught Mandarin cooking classes in the restaurant’s kitchen to James Beard, Julia Child, and Alice Waters, among others. Her accomplishments also include the opening of another Mandarin in Beverly Hills, the publication of The Mandarin Way (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1974) as well as The Seventh Daughter, and raising two children, May and Philip, the co-founder of the restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s.
Chiang’s old friend Alice Waters has referred to her as the Julia Child of Chinese food, for “bringing not just the food from China but the whole culture of China—the whole way to serve, the way to be generous with other people at the table, the way that food was considered something very precious and important in everyday life.”
Today Chiang jests about a reprise of her career. “I’m too old now, but people say I should open another little Mandarin,” she says, lamenting the quality of Chinese food in San Francisco these days. “The only place you can have really good Chinese food is Los Angeles.”
Nicole Citron is a freelance writer and brand and communications consultant living in New York City.