In another blow to the culinary world this year, famed restaurateur and one of the early voices of Chinese American cooking, Cecilia Chiang, has died.
The San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the story, called Chiang “the mother of Chinese food in America and one of the most influential figures in Bay Area culinary history” (the story cites unnamed family members who confirmed Chiang’s passing).
Chiang, who turned 100 this year, opened her eponymous Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco in the 1960s, amidst a time where Chinese cuisine was still in flux in terms of identity in North America. Chiang’s influence in the food world extended beyond the city limits of San Francisco, mentoring chef Alice Waters and writer Ruth Reichl, among many others.
Born to privilege in China, Chiang was unfamiliar with the workings of the kitchen and cooking itself, which was done by servants as in many upper class Chinese households. Her escape from the Japanese invasion in 1942 and subsequent emigration to the United States is a well chronicled one, as is her struggle to open a fine-dining Chinese restaurant against prevailing cultural norms in North America. “Using a glamorous dining room as her platform, she worked to undo decades of anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States and broaden the understanding of Chinese culture. She made that work seem effortless. It wasn’t,” wrote Tejal Rao in The New York Times. “Racist landlords discouraged her as she worked to open a larger location. Diners used to inexpensive Chinese food complained about the prices. Ms. Chiang was a woman in her 40s, starting her own business in a new country, in an industry dominated by men. But under her command, the Mandarin thrived, becoming one of the nation’s most influential restaurants of its time.”
Although the restaurant (sold in the 1990s and closed in 2006) bears no relation to the Canadian Mandarin buffet chain or countless other restaurants of similar names, it went on to spawn six locations, and was also the ancestor of P.F. Chang’s (opened by her grandson Phillip).
Chiang’s story, as told to Eater, of trying to open a restaurant with friends who later backed out of a deal leaving her stranded with a $10,000 deposit is a good warning read for first time restaurateurs today. “I was just so naive. Later, I just thought how stupid I was. I was totally ignorant. I didn’t know business, I didn’t know the value of the money. Then I thought, What am I going to say to my husband? How in the world am I going to tell him?,” Chiang told Eater. “I tried to sell it, [but] nobody wanted it. I tried everything, and I felt ashamed. Finally, I said, “I better open the restaurant,” otherwise the $10,000 is just down the drain. I found a couple from Shandong, also from northern China, because I didn’t want anything Cantonese, anything chop suey. I really wanted to bring real Chinese cuisine to the USA. That’s how I opened.”
Writing about her grandmother in Vice, Siena Chiang recalls how the matriarch was ever on alert when it came to restaurant operations (a familiar refrain to those in the industry who reflectively count seats or note service issues even when dining out casually.) “Constantly scanning the dining room, she oscillates between observing the staff (“Look at that—the GM is bussing that table himself!”) and commenting on how the owner could increase margins (“Putting bottles of tap water on the table cuts out so much labor expense—even The French Laundry does it”). Obviously, her chief pastime is evaluating the food (“I can’t believe they used American cucumbers for this dish; the skin is way too thick—inedible”),” she writes. “I am certain that she will leave this earth having tried the latest restaurant the night before, with more than a few ideas for how it could be better.”