If you don't already know the name, Cecilia Chiang did for Chinese food what Julia Child did for French cooking: She made it accessible to a generation of Americans who, until she came along, had to deal with grotesque bastardizations prepared with substandard ingredients.
In 1961, Chiang founded The Mandarin, a Polk Street restaurant that everyone told her would fail because she wasn't catering to white middlebrow palates by serving chop suey. A few years later, it moved to Ghirardelli Square, where — along with another location in Beverly Hills — The Mandarin became a darling of the smart set and lasted until 2006. Chiang had long since bowed out of the kitchen by then, and her son Philip had gone on to co-found P.F. Chang's in 1993.
Chiang, at 96 years of age, remains active and heavily involved in the San Francisco dining scene, providing sage advice to people you might not think would need any, like Belinda Leong of B. Patisserie. Last Thursday, at the P.F. Chang's in Emeryville, more than 100 people — among them Leong, Gary Danko, and Laurence Jossel of Nopa — gathered to honor Chiang on the occasion of a six-part documentary series, The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang, which premieres Monday, July 12 on KQED. Philip Chiang, for his part, recalled redeeming Coke bottles 55 years ago, admitting that the inspiration to open a restaurant came to him relatively late in life.
[jump] Much has been written about Chiang's earlier life and the obstacles she overcame to make a name for herself. (Being a foreign-born woman made her unable to procure a liquor license, for one, and the wholesalers she worked with in Chinatown demanded cash for every transaction, never extending any credit.) So I asked her what she was up to these days. I knew she was active, but I didn't realize she went out every evening.
“Last night I had two dinners,” she said. “My granddaughter came — she’s from Boston — and she was hungry for some Japanese sashimi, so we went to a new restaurant called Ju-Ni. Very good. Michael [Bauer] gave it three stars. The chef is young and Chinese, but he’s old school.”
Making a slapping gesture with one hand on top of the the other, she added, “So I watched him make the rice. I said, ‘Oh, you’re from the old school, you know the old-fashioned way,’ and he said, ‘Oh, how do you know?’ And I said, ‘I lived in Japan before I came here!’ So he was very happy.”
Ju-Ni only seats 12 people, so Chiang later went to Cala in Hayes Valley to meet her son, because he wanted her to say hello to some friends from P.F. Chang's. It turned into dinner No. 2.
“They have a second seating and [Cala’s chef, Gabriela] Cámara was there. ‘Oh, Cecilia, you look good,’ she said. So we started to eat another meal,” she said.
Dining out is part of her normal routine, which otherwise involves fruit and oatmeal for breakfast and a walk and stretch in Lafayette Park, near Cecilia Chiang's home in Pacific Heights. She's on the phone a lot, making fundraising calls for a school that set up a scholarship fund in her name, and mentoring some of San Francisco's leading culinary masters as needed. When she first met Leong seven or eight years ago, the latter was working at Gary Danko. Cecilia Chiang described her as “quite shy.”
“She'd never had any business before. First time, so she’s kind of timid, not enough confidence. So I pushed her: 'Don’t be afraid.' She said, 'People have said the location’s not good, no place to park, also you have no walk-ins because blah blah blah.' I said, 'Belinda, don’t listen to other people! You make the location.' “
People told Cecilia Chiang the exact same thing more than a half-century ago when she opened her restaurant a mile away from Chinatown.
She expressed admiration for Leong's 18-hour days, the fact that she's employing 10 people, and how she's opening a third location of B. Patisserie (in Honolulu). As with Alice Waters several decades ago, the pride she takes in her protege's success is self-evident. And after a minute, I couldn't tell if Cecilia Chiang was recounting the story to me or just imparting generalized wisdom.
“You do what you can do. The best you can,” she said. “Don’t listen to anybody. You have to make yourself strong and just go out and do it.
The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang premieres on KQED on Monday, July 11, at 9:30 p.m.