Cecilia Chiang, the Shanghai-born restaurateur who revolutionized the national culinary scene with her approach to northern Chinese cuisine, passed away this week on Chronicle of San Francisco reports. She was 100 years old.
Born on September 18, 1920 to a wealthy family in Wuxi, Chiang grew up in Beijing in a 52-room mansion. During China’s war with Japan, Chiang and his sister, “disguised as peasants” (Saveur wrote in 2000) fled hundreds of kilometers to Sichuan. It was the first of many escapes from war-torn areas, as Chiang – then married to Chiang Liang – fled to Japan and then to the United States.
In the late 1950s, Chiang visited her sister in San Francisco, where she met two aspiring restaurateurs who asked her for help opening a restaurant on Polk Street, the Marin Independent Journal written in 2007. She invested $ 10,000 and signed the lease, thinking it was the end… but her partners then backed down.
“I decided to try to make the most of it,” Chiang wrote in his memoir, The seventh daughter. “I would try to make the restaurant a success first. Then I would tell Chiang Liang. This restaurant was the Mandarin, which opened with a menu of around 300 dishes, far from the Chinese delivery and delivery spots that dominated the market at the time. Speaking with B. Patisserie founder Belinda Leong, Chiang said she was told, “You don’t serve Cantonese food. You don’t serve chop suey; the only Chinese food that people know about is chop suey. I said, “I’m just trying to do my best. I wanted to introduce real Chinese food to America. This is how I did it.
The service was also different from what Americans expected, Chiang says. “All of my servers were from UC Berkeley, spoke good English, came from great families. Those days you went to Chinatown: “Sweet and Sour Pork, # 2”. They called numbers to serve. Those days they just put the plate down, just threw it on the table. No tablecloths, no rugs in Chinatown. No seats, just a bench.
Within a year, Mandarin was a hit with local notables like novelist CY Lee and newspaper columnist Herb Caen, a level of success that helped Chiang decide to extend his stay in SF. She brought in her children and bought a house in St. Francis Wood, who would be the first non-white owner in the neighborhood.
By 1968, the Mandarin had come out of his excavation, and Chiang moved the restaurant to a 300-seat space inside the new Ghirardelli Square complex. The construction of the luxurious dining room is said to have reached over $ 1 million (adjusted for inflation, that’s around $ 7.5 million today). She opened a second iteration of the Mandarin in Beverly Hills in 1975, serving the Hollywood glitterati, and in the 1980s, opened the Mandarette Chinese Cafe with her son Philip, who eventually founded the PF Chang chain.
She sold Mandarin in 1991, but remained active in the business, writing two books, winning the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, and traveling with people like Alice Waters, whom Chiang called “a very good friend.” . We have been to Europe together… maybe five times. We’ve got all of these three Michelin star restaurants covered. And one day we went to a restaurant in Europe where it was difficult to enter. But somehow James Beard said if we really wanted to go he could call someone and make a reservation for us.
In 2014, Chiang was the subject of a documentary by Joy Luck Club director Wayne Wang called Soul of a banquet, in which she tells the story of her life as she cooks a special dinner for the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse. (It’s available on the Amazon Prime video.)
She was also a regular on the San Francisco restaurant and event scene, making frequent appearances at openings and galas. At 98, she said, “I go out with friends a lot. I love to eat out… I think it’s very important, especially when you get older, to have really good friends, because your own kids get married, have kids, they move somewhere. You need good friends to keep you company. About ten years ago, this correspondent shared a table with her at an SF Restaurant Week event, where some of the city’s biggest names lined up to pay their respects. She said everyone’s name before they could even introduce themselves to her, and was unerringly gracious.
Speaking to Leong in 2018, Chiang said she was often asked how she had managed to live such a long and successful life. “The first thing I have to say, I have to thank my ancestors,” she said. “We have good genes. … Another thing is that I am trying to learn Chinese moderation. I truly believe that: never overeat or never drink too much. Never overdo it.