The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Cecilia Chiang

This San Francisco restaurateur, still going strong at 97, changed the way we think about Chinese food

Chiang is still going strong at 97 years old.

The Daily Meal is announcing the inductees into its Hall of Fame for 2017. The Hall of Fame honors key figures, both living and dead, from the world of food. We are introducing the honorees, one per weekday. Our third inductee is Cecilia Chiang. For all Daily Meal Hall of Fame inductees, please click here.

Cecilia Chiang (1920–) might be 97 years old, but she is still consummately busy, doing interviews, consulting, and going out to either lunch or dinner almost every day of the week. There is practically no new restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area that she does not visit when it opens, sometimes more than once. Her schedule would be daunting for someone half her age.

Chiang is the grande dame of Chinese cuisine in America, a position she attained not deliberately but almost by chance — or at least by happenstance.

Born near Shanghai into a privileged family and raised in Beijing during the politically tumultuous 1920s and ‘30s,, Chiang became acquainted with her national cuisine by osmosis, through her parents — especially her mother — and the two household chefs. She learned about cuisine by experiencing it, and clearly remembered her childhood eating experiences.

As a young woman, Chiang walked halfway across China to escape the Japanese occupation, and later settled in Shanghai with her businessman husband — fleeing the country in 1949 just ahead of the Communist revolutionary army. She arrived in Northern California, by way of Tokyo, in 1959. And when she more or less accidentally became a restaurateur in San Francisco the following year — she advanced some money to two friends who were going to open a restaurant, and when they backed out and the landlord wouldn’t return the deposit, she opened one herself on the site — she changed the way Americans thought about Chinese food.

Chiang’s importance to the way we eat in America today stems from the fact that she virtually created what would become known in the U.S. as “Mandarin” cuisine. Northern styles of Chinese cooking were not much known in this country before Chiang opened her restaurant — called The Mandarin. At that time in this country there were no restaurants serving the dishes of Shanghai, Beijing, or the Sichuan or Hunan regions.Before Chiang, there was no such thing in America as tea-smoked duck; there were no pot stickers, minced squab in lettuce cups, beggar’s chicken, or crystal bananas.

Before Chiang, there was no such thing in America as tea-smoked duck; there were no pot stickers, minced squab in lettuce cups, beggar’s chicken, or crystal bananas. Chinese cuisine here was still largely identified with luridly red-colored sweet-and-sour dishes or hashed up “chop suey.” Chiang introduced food full of complexity and subtlety. Chinese cuisine took on a different look. Diners slowly began to notice the difference and to demand new experiences rather than the same old “Chinese” fare. Just as the regional differences in Italian cooking have only recently become apparent to American diners, those of China began to become known.

Related Stories
The Daily Meal Hall of FameThe Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Thomas JeffersonThe Daily Meal Hall of Fame: James BeardThe Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Auguste EscoffierThe Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Alice Waters

China is so immense, though, and has so vast a range of culinary specialties, that we needed someone to guide us through its rich cuisines. Cecilia Chiang became that guide for serious eaters in California and eventually the rest of the country. Had she not been here, we food-lovers would have had to invent her.