San Francisco Social Diary: A Century Of Good Taste — The Life of Culinary Icon Cecilia Chiang

Centenarian and culinary icon Cecilia Chiang, pictured with her family in Beijing, migrated to San Francisco and revolutionized American appreciation for authentic Chinese food with her groundbreaking restaurant, the Mandarin.

During this time of Covid-19 and all its ramifications, it’s comforting to hear the inspiring story of Cecilia Chiang, a still-vital culinary icon who most recently celebrated her 100th birthday.

Cecilia Chiang, credited with introducing Americans to authentic Chinese cuisine and hailed as “the Julia Child of Chinese food” by acclaimed chef Alice Waters, is a great American success story. Cecilia is still as engaging today as when we first became friends back in the 1970s. She celebrated her 100th birthday with a spectacular party in San Francisco.

Opened in 1961, Cecilia’s legendary San Francisco restaurant, the Mandarin, was arguably the best Chinese restaurant in the U.S. for over 30 years. Today, she continues to inspire everyone from friends and colleagues to top chefs and restaurateurs the world over. She challenged the American idea of Chinese food and transformed our appreciation for authentic cuisine whatever its origin.

The beloved Cecilia Chiang celebrated her 100th birthday at 3-Michelin-star Benu in San Francisco and received a letter of congratulations from California Governor Gavin Newsom.


CHIANG HONORED WITH A JAMES BEARD LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Cecilia Chiang has enjoyed many extraordinary honors, and I was thrilled to be there for one of the greatest in 2013, when, at age 93, she received the long overdue Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Awards, known as the “Culinary Oscars” at New York’s Lincoln Center. 

James Beard was a well-known cook, author, and teacher who hosted I Love to Eat, one of the first televised cooking shows, on NBC in 1946. 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.” Cecilia considers it her legacy to have redefined what Americans know about Chinese food and culture.

In her acceptance speech, Cecilia said, “This is an incredible honor. James Beard was one of my close personal friends, so this award holds a special place in my heart.”

Sponsor Andrew Sneyd and award-winning chef Thomas Keller, the first American-born chef to hold two 3-Michelin-star restaurants (Napa Valley’s French Laundry and NYC’s Per Se).

Sponsor Tim Brown with lifestyle guru and television personality Martha Stewart.

Over two-thousand people attended the James Beard Awards ceremony at Lincoln Center Avery Hall (now David Geffen Hall).

At the after-party: Jeanne Lawrence with the late restaurateur Sirio Maccioni (Le Cirque, Circo, and Sirio) and San Francisco Michelin-star chef Gary Danko.

Chiang’s granddaughter Siena Chiang, with Cecilia Chiang and her son Philip Chiang, who co-founded the P.F. Chang Chinese restaurant chain phenomenon.

Jeanne Lawrence and Cecilia Chiang at the 2013 James Beard Awards, to which she wore an authentic Qing-era brocade qipao—in red of course, a lucky color in Chinese culture.

During the James Beard Awards ceremony, we watched a moving short film about Cecilia’s life and achievements:


OUR LONGTIME FRIENDSHIP

Cecilia and I met through my cooking series Cuisines Around the World, which aired on KCSM-TV in the late 1970s and showcased acclaimed chefs demonstrating how to prepare international dishes. I invited her to discuss Chinese cuisine, and so began our longtime friendship. 

My admiration for her has only grown, as she’s an inspiration to us all on how to be passionately involved in life and the things you love, regardless of your age.

Guest chef Cecilia Chiang joined Jeanne Lawrence on her television cooking series Cuisines Around the World on KCSM-TV in the late 1970s.

At 100, Cecilia maintains an active social life, dining or visiting with friends almost daily. “It’s very important, especially when you’re getting older, to have really good friends,” she says. She keeps up with what’s new, what’s best, and what the culinary world is gossiping about. Because she’s always laughing and is a hypnotic storyteller, she’s much in demand as a table companion.


GOURMET TOUR OF ASIA WITH FRIENDS

A few years ago, I joined Cecilia Chiang and a group of friends on a gourmet tour of Asia, where we dined at the best restaurants and local eateries in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

In Shanghai, Stephanie Lawrence, Jeanne Lawrence, Cecilia Chiang, and friends dined at the top restaurant for authentic Peking duck, including all the fixings.

In Singapore, Cecilia and friends enjoyed the local hawker fare at the outdoor markets, filled with row upon row of stalls serving an amazing variety of Asian foods.


EARLY CHILDHOOD IN CHINA

Born in 1920 (Chinese year of the Monkey) near Shanghai, Cecilia was raised in Beijing (which before Mao was called Peking) in a wealthy family of twelve children (nine daughters and three sons). As a child, Cecilia was not allowed in the kitchen, as two cooks prepared Shanghai-style and Northern Mandarin-style cuisine for the family. She learned about food at the dinner table, where each dish in elaborate, multi-course meals was discussed and critiqued.

Cecilia’s privileged life came to an end in 1942, when she and a sister fled the Japanese occupation with an arduous thousand-mile, six-month trek (on foot!) from Beijing to Chongqing. She resettled in Shanghai, where, as a young woman, she met her husband and raised her children, May and Philip. The family enjoyed the sophisticated and dynamic Shanghai life when the city was booming. However, that all came to an end in 1949, when she fled from China to Japan during the Communist Revolution.

Cecilia’s childhood was spent in Beijing, in a traditional 52-room courtyard-style home, where she lived what she remembers as an idyllic life.

In 1949, during the Communist Revolution, Cecilia and some of her family fled from Shanghai to Japan. Her mother and father and some siblings sadly remained in China.


STARTING A BUSINESS IN AMERICA

In 1959, Cecilia traveled to San Francisco to visit her recently widowed sister for what was meant to be a brief stay. She stayed and in l961, through a series of chance encounters, opened a Chinese restaurant on Polk Street that she named the Mandarin.

At this 65-seat “hole in the wall,” she introduced the American palate to authentic Northern Chinese cuisine from cities such as Shanghai and Beijing and the provinces of Sichuan and Hunan. Her menus were starkly different from the Americanized dishes that populated Chinese restaurants at the time, such as chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young.

Looking back today, Cecilia says, “Maybe I was naïve about venturing into entrepreneurship in a new country, as an immigrant and in an industry dominated by men.” In her first restaurant, she wore many hats: hostess, reservationist, food procurer, waiter—even busboy! Granddaughter Siena Chiang credits her grandmother’s success to grit, luck, and “an uncanny sense for good food.”

Instead of inauthentic Americanized dishes, Cecilia offered only the Northern Chinese dishes of her childhood from the country’s many provinces.

A successful entrepreneur as well as an accomplished cook, Chiang led the Mandarin’s kitchen, oversaw the food quality, and helped her guests navigate the exotic menu.

A bright red door welcomed guests to the original Polk Street Mandarin, which seated just 65 diners, but introduced Americans to authentic regional Chinese cuisine.


THE MANDARIN’S RAVE REVIEWS

The Mandarin took off when the late Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle’s legendary columnist, heard people raving about the restaurant. Always in search of the best, he and restaurateur Victor Bergeron, of Trader Vic’s fame, brought in their crowd, and Cecilia’s reputation was established. Caen exclaimed that the Mandarin served “the best Chinese food east of the Pacific.”

In 1968, Cecilia achieved her dream after bravely moving the Mandarin to a glamorous, larger space in Ghirardelli Square, site of the former Ghirardelli chocolate factory near Fisherman’s Wharf with views of the bay. 

It would prove to be a huge success—and the secret ingredient was Madame Chiang herself. She sold the Mandarin in 1991, much to her clientele’s dismay, and its closing in 2006 was a big loss to the Bay Area and the culinary world at large.

The New York Times wrote, in 2019: “Under [Cecilia’s] command, the Mandarin thrived, becoming one of the nation’s most influential restaurants of its time.”

The luxurious and elegant interior of the Mandarin at Ghirardelli Square, with the presence of Madame Chiang in elegant attire, was quite unlike the typical Chinese takeout joint.

While living in San Francisco, the Mandarin was one of my favorite places to entertain guests, especially out-of-towners, as Madame Chiang would suggest the best house specialties.

One of the specialties was Mongolian lamb and barbecued ribs that guests cooked themselves over the open fire pit using long chopsticks.

Signature dishes included Peking duck and tea-smoked duck, pan-fried dumplings, beggar’s chicken, Sichuan spicy eggplant, sizzling rice soup, and glacé apples and bananas.


CELEBRITIES FLOCK TO THE MANDARIN, AND CECILIA BECOMES A STAR HERSELF

Throughout her career in San Francisco, Cecilia developed friendships with the city’s power brokers and earned the adoration of locals, the food world, and the many luminaries who passed through the Mandarin’s doors, including the Kennedys, the Bushes, Henry Kissinger, bandmembers of Jefferson Airplane, and Yoko Ono and John Lennon, among others. In 1974, she opened a Mandarin in Beverly Hills that continued to attract celebrities and a chic crowd.

Among Cecilia’s celebrity fans was James Beard, whom she met in the 1960s when he dined at the Mandarin. Beard was so impressed by her regional Chinese dishes that he even took her cooking classes, along with many other venerable colleagues, including Alice Waters, Julia Child, Marion Cunningham, Jeremiah Tower, Danny Kaye, Chuck Williams (of Williams-Sonoma)—and also me! I hope I still have her recipes.

Cecilia with James Beard, who co-founded Citymeals on Wheels in 1981 with former New York Magazine food critic Gael Green.

With star tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who made his San Francisco Opera debut in 1967, singing the role of Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème.

Ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev always dined at the Mandarin when in town; reportedly, his favorite was Mongolian lamb cooked on the fire pit.

The legendary Freddie Mercury, lead singer of rock band Queen. Don’t miss Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the musical biopic of his life.

Cecilia with her dear friend, the iconic Julia Child, who brought French cooking to America with her television show The French Chef, which she hosted from 1963 to 1973.

On the right: Cecilia, author Beverley Jackson, and food luminaries Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters playing “dress-up” in Jackson’s vintage Chinese robes in Santa Barbara in the 1980s.


SOUL OF A BANQUET, A BIOGRAPHICAL DOCUMENTARY

In 2014, Wayne Wang (director of, among other films, The Joy Luck Club [1993], adapted from Amy Tan’s bestselling book) released Soul of a Banquet, a documentary about Cecilia. She is surely among the last to have living memory of Chinese life and cuisine of the past century.

Soul of a Banquet focuses on a Chinese banquet that Cecilia prepared at home to honor Alice Waters and the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, her groundbreaking Berkeley restaurant. In it, Cecilia recalls compelling moments of her life story, including memories of the losses her family suffered during China’s Cultural Revolution.

In Soul of a Banquet, Cecilia prepares a multi-course Chinese banquet at her home with 22 of her favorite dishes, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her guests.

In this scene, Cecilia bonds with Alice Waters, a seven-time James Beard Award Winner, including the 1997 Humanitarian of the Year.


CELEBRATION DINNER AT YANK SING

To celebrate the release of the film Soul of a Banquet, Cecilia was feted at San Francisco’s Yank Sing, famous for its dim sum. On the menu: the classic dishes I remembered from the Mandarin that she prepares in the film.

Director Wayne Wang with Soul of a Banquet producer Jonathan Bing. Wang’s credits also include Maid in Manhattan, Snow Flower and Secret Fan, and Anywhere But Here.

At the Chinese banquet: Ruth Reichl, acclaimed food writer and former Gourmet Magazine editor-in-chief, Cecilia Chiang, and Alice Waters, progenitor of the farm-to-table movement.

Cecilia’s granddaughter Alisa Chiang, author Amy Tan (Bonesetter’s Daughter, Joy Luck Club), Cecilia Chiang, and Cecilia’s niece Ping Chen.

The final banquet course was Sweet and Sour Crispy Rock Cod with Pine Nuts. Fish have symbolic meaning because the Mandarin word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for abundance.

Madame Chiang, back at the helm to recreate some of her specialty dishes, enthusiastically gave chef Andy Tsai the “thumbs up.”


HONORING CECILIA IN NEW YORK AT A CHINESE TEA

Cecilia and her entourage flew to Manhattan for the opening of Soul of a Banquet, and to attend several dinners and events in her honor, including a tea party at my home to introduce her to my East Coast friends.

When I noticed that multiple guests were asking her the same questions, I sat her in the center of the room to tell her remarkable journey. She charmed the guests, who still refer to the event fondly.

Jeanne Lawrence hosted a Chinese tea party in her Upper East Side home honoring Cecilia, in town for the debut of her biographical documentary, Soul of a Banquet.

Cecilia Chiang and Lucia Hwong Gordon, whose mother, actress Lisa Lu, is Cecilia’s longtime friend. (Lu starred in The Last Empress and played the matriarch in Crazy Rich Asians.)

As I held a copy of Cecilia’s memoir, friends peppered her with questions about her early life in China almost a century ago.

Attendees listened raptly as Cecilia recounted her thousand-mile trek across China with her sister during the Sino-Japanese war and her life in China before the Communist Revolution.


THE KITCHEN WISDOM OF CECILIA CHIANG SHOWCASES A CENTURY OF KNOWLEDGE

In 2016, at age 96, PBS released The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang, a television miniseries produced by Charlie Pinsky (Frappé Productions). I was one of the sponsors and my daughter Stephanie was a production assistant. Cecilia has almost a century’s worth of wisdom, knowledge, and palate of authentic Chinese food like no other, which needs to be passed on to future generations.

Part documentary and part cooking show, each episode paired the 96-year-old with younger Bay Area chefs, making classic Chinese dishes and sharing life stories. Guest chefs included Corey Lee (Benu,) Belinda Leong (b. Patisserie), Laurence Jossel (Nopa), Nancy Oakes (Boulevard), Keiko Takahashi (Keiko à Nob Hill), and Gary Danko. Other chefs, such as Tyler Florence, Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters, and Michael Bauer, also made appearances.

The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang combines her life story and recipes with San Francisco star chefs who share their own stories and recipes.

Filming the PBS series The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang: chef Nancy Oakes of Boulevard, production assistant Stephanie Lawrence, and Cecilia Chiang.

Cecilia demonstrates her technique for making perfect Chinese dumplings to chef Corey Lee of Benu.

Belinda Leong of b. Patisserie, a James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Baker 2018, is among the many chefs mentored by Cecilia—her pastries rival any in the world.

Chef Gary Danko (center), another James Beard Award-winning chef whose eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant serves refined classic yet modern dishes, with his sous chef Tori Schumacher.

The series can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/ceciliachiang.


DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER OPERA

Cecilia’s interests go beyond the culinary. She’s involved in Bay Area cultural events, as well as with the Chinese-American community, in which she’s celebrated as a great immigration success story.

She was warmly received when we attended the San Francisco Opera world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber, an adaptation of a classic 18th century Chinese novel, as well known in China as Romeo and Juliet in the West.

Dream of the Red Chamber featured vividly ornamented, dreamlike sets designed by Tim Yip, the Oscar-winning art director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Standing: Sherry Chen, Tiffany Wang, Shirley Soong, and Director Stan Lai; seated: Denise Hale, Cecilia Chiang, and Stan Lai’s mother Lingling Lai.

Tom Carroll, Carolyn Carroll, Shirley Soong, Gala Chairs Gorretti Lo Lui and Doreen Woo Ho, and Federico Sandino.

Dan Rose, Tony Bates, Cori Bates, Gala Chair Gorretti Lo Lui, Allison Rose, Jamie Chen, and YouTube founder Steve Chen.

Jeanne Lawrence, the late SF Mayor Ed Lee, his wife Anita Lee, and Cecilia Chiang.

Many guests dressed in Chinese-inspired outfits to attend the gourmet Chinese dinner in a beautifully lit room.


CELEBRATING CECILIA’S 98TH BIRTHDAY AT CHINA LIVE

Because Cecilia’s fans are so numerous, her birthdays have always been cause for celebration. For her 98th, longtime friends George and Cindy Chen hosted an unforgettable party at their hotspot China Live in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which opened in 2018.

China Live is the successful culmination of a lifelong dream. George has opened 16 restaurants, such as Betelnut, Shanghai 1930, Xanadu, and Roosevelt Prime Steakhouse in Shanghai, where I first met him while I was living there. But his dream was to own a Chinese restaurant that elevated Chinese cuisine and was inspired by Cecilia, which San Francisco was sorely lacking.

China Live quickly earned a reputation as the “Chinese Eataly,” in a reference to NYC’s Italian Eataly, with food halls, cafes, to-go counters, and sit-down restaurants.

I always drop in at China Live when I’m in San Francisco. I enjoy dining at the counter to watch dim sum preparation, and I’ve hosted many dinner parties there for friends.

China Live restaurateurs George and Cindy Chen with Cecilia Chiang. George was mentored by Cecilia in the 1970s when he waited tables at the Mandarin while attending UC Berkeley.

Jeanne Lawrence, Charles Chen, Cecilia Chiang, and Belinda Leong—pastry chef, co-owner, and creator of b. Patisserie bakery, and winner of the 2018 James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker.

Standing: David Litman, Paul Denlinger, Wa Ye, Siena Chiang, Alisa Ongbhaibulya, Bao He Chang, Marisa Ongbhaibulya, and Ping Chen; seated: Jennifer Hsu, May Chiang, and Cecilia Chiang.

James Beard Award-winning Corey Lee, chef/owner of Benu restaurant, one of only 14 three-Michelin-star restaurants in the U.S.

Standing: Marimar Torres, Darrell Corti, Dale Ikeda, Andrew Teran, Michael Wilmar, John Ruden; seated: Gerald Asher, Sue Yung Li, Cecilia Chiang, Jeanne Lawrence, and Inja Wilmar.

Standing: Doug Fleming, Jasmine Yang, Kathleen Ko, Natalie Goh, David Litman, Betty Shon, and David Fu; seated: Alicia Lo, Jennifer Hsu, Cecilia Chiang, Christina Decker, and Patty Hoyt.

Standing: Chef Michael Tusk, Xiaojun Lee, Michael Murphy, and Julia and Dale Ross; seated: Lindsay Tusk, Cecilia Chiang, food critic Michael Bauer, and Kelly Fleming.

Host George Chen, award-winning pastry chef Belinda Leong, and the kitchen crew prepared a meal to remember and felt honored to participate in the celebration.

In the China Live kitchen, chef/owner George Chen inspected the delicious Jiao-tze potsticker dumplings, which translates literally to “wok stick.”

Naturally, potstickers, ubiquitous in both China and in Chinatown, were on the menu at China Live. (While living in Shanghai, my quest was to search out the perfect dumplings).

At China Live, inspired appetizers were passed before the banquet dinner, which included many of Cecilia’s favorite dishes she pioneered at the Mandarin.

My mouth waters just reminiscing about Cecilia’s party menu, which included so many masterpieces of Chinese cuisine!

I love this photo of Cecilia scrutinizing the dishes as they rolled out, much as she did as the Mandarin’s Boss Lady. She never misses a beat.

Minced Squab in Lettuce Cups was one of the most popular dishes at the Mandarin, although today it’s often made with chicken instead of the classic squab.

Pork Lion’s Head Meatball with Greens is a celebration dish that gets its name from the fact that the meatballs resemble a guardian lion head.

Steamed Whole Rock Cod with Sizzling Scallion Oil. I recall that the Mandarin also served a sizzling rice soup we ordered for its spectacular presentation.

George Chen beams to see that the preparation and presentation of the rock cod dish has obviously won Cecilia’s approval.

In a highlight moment, Cecilia, with mallet in hand, cracked open the shell surrounding the Beggar’s Chicken to uncover the most succulent and juicy chicken I’ve ever tasted.

A favorite of the Chinese Imperial Court, Beggar’s Chicken traditionally calls for marinating a whole chicken, encasing it in lotus leaves and parchment, and baking it in clay.

Happy birthday to an icon and inspiration to many.

Cheers to good food and good friends!


CELEBRATING A CENTURY OF GOOD LIVING

At Cecilia’s 98th birthday celebration, Corey Lee, chef/owner of 3-Michelin-star Benu restaurant, said he would host her 100th birthday—and he kept his promise. For her 100th birthday party, a crowd of family members, lifelong friends, and celebrity admirers celebrated the occasion at Benu (one of Cecilia’s favorites), known for its innovative fusion of Western and Asian flavors.

Lee trained at Thomas Keller’s 3-Michelin-star French Laundry (Napa Valley) and Per Se (New York). Like Keller, Lee is a perfectionist. He opened Benu in 2010, and by 2014 it too received a 3-Michelin-star rating and a reputation as one of the hottest spots in town.

Arriving for her 100th birthday celebration at Benu, Cecilia was surprised and delighted to see her image projected onto a wall in the courtyard.

Cecilia Chiang with her family: Todd Vu, Marisa Ongbhaibulya, May Chiang, Alisa Ongbhaibulya, and Siena Chiang.

Stephanie Lawrence, Cecilia Chiang, and Jeanne Lawrence in the garden entry of Benu restaurant in San Francisco.

Still as exuberant, sharp, and elegant as ever, Cecilia has a close friendship with Benu chef/owner Corey Lee, and the pair continue to inspire one another.

Some of America’s top chefs surround Cecilia: Thomas Keller (French Laundry), Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), Gary Danko (of Gary Danko), Corey Lee (Benu), and Charles Chen.

Cecilia Chiang with her daughter May Chiang and son Philip Chiang, who flew in from Japan to celebrate her 100th birthday party.

Cecilia with Vera Chan-Waller and Nathan Waller, who own Yank Sing, where the rolling carts of dim sum always draw a capacity crowd.

Charlie Pinsky, Cecilia Chiang, and granddaughter Siena Chiang. Charlie produced the PBS Series The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang that showcases some of her specialty dishes.

Cecilia Chiang with filmmaker Wayne Wang, director of Soul of a Banquet, the documentary that follows Cecilia as she prepares a Chinese banquet honoring Alice Waters.

Ping Chen, Cecilia Chiang, and John Deloche.

Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem, one of the sponsors of the PBS TV miniseries The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang, with Cecilia Chiang.

Michael Murphy, Cecilia Chiang, and Michael Bauer, who recently retired as the San Francisco Chronicle’s food critic after 32 years.

In Benu’s kitchen, an army of ambitious, talented, and dedicated aspiring chefs prep all day to prepare the dinners for just 50 guests per night.

Mussels with glass noodle and fine vegetables.

Chilled abalone jang.

The stuffed chicken wing with bacon and soft-cooked egg was to die for!

The kitchen brigade’s impeccable attention to detail: In silence, they focus on precise preparations.

Tomato with summer herbs.

Caviar and sesame wafer.

Lobster with beef tendon and ginger, steamed rice noodle, parsley, and bone marrow.

Kohlrabi kkakdugi with perilla-scallion salad, which was partnered with charcoal-grilled beef rib.

Chef Corey Lee has won multiple awards and accolades for Benu, and is building his empire with the addition of French bistro Monsieur Benjamin, and In Situ inside SFMOMA.

Chef Lee presented Cecilia with a Certificate of Honor bestowed by the city and county of San Francisco and signed by the current mayor, London Breed.

No birthday party is complete without a cake, and chef Corey Lee rose to this important occasion with a heavenly hazelnut, praline, and caramel creation.

Cecilia is always up for a good time, which is why she has attracted longtime friends of all generations from around the world—and why she is out dining day and night.

A trio of award-winning Bay Area chefs: Thomas Keller, Cecilia Chiang, and Alice Waters enjoying their close friendships after cake and champagne.

Everyone raised a toast to Cecilia Chiang for a life so well-lived—100 years thus far—and wished for more to come!

 

Photography by Frank Jang, Jeanne Lawrence, Teresa Lok, Drew Altizer, Cecilia Chiang Archives, James Beard Foundation, San Francisco Opera, and courtesy SF History Center, SF Public Library.