“I’m a real foodie!” Cecilia Chiang proclaims sitting in the kitchen of her Russian Hill home in San Francisco. The ninety-five year old has a busier social calendar than most people in their twenties and thirties and admits to running around the city and eating out at her favorite restaurants (with her young friends!) at least five to six times a week. Cecilia is a powerhouse despite her small stature, and has a reputation of being both wildly smart and filled with endless stories from her long and successful career as a restaurateur and chef.
While her evenings are now dedicated to enjoying the food at other chef’s restaurants, Cecilia was once the most revered and revolutionary chef in San Francisco. She has been called the “Mother of Chinese cooking” and is responsible for bringing real Chinese food to California. She has maintained and continues to explore her passion for food throughout her many years in the industry, and credits growing up in a food-centric home for much of her culinary education.
“I was born in Shanghai but when I was about five years old my family moved to Beijing where we settled down and I started my education. I came from a big family with twelve kids: three boys and nine girls. I am the seventh daughter. When we were living in Shanghai we ate a lot of good seafood; lobster, shrimp, fish…but when we moved to Beijing, we were more inland so we ate a lot of vegetables and grains. You see each province in China has different weather. The soil is different. So our food changed a lot when we moved. My parents were not used to the local food and they had brought their old chef from Shanghai to Beijing. When we settled in, we hired another young chef from Beijing who made pancakes, noodles, and dumplings, things we weren’t used to eating before. We were lucky because we had two cooks at home. One cook made us Shanghai cuisine and the other cooked local food.”
Spending dinnertime around a large table was a nightly tradition for Cecilia’s family. “Nighttime was the only time where everyone came home and was together. We had a big family and during the day everyone had different things to do. We also had a very big house. You didn’t get to see each other that much! But for dinner, the whole family always sat at a big round table, which we had specially built. That was the only time everyone was there in one room and it was around that big table.” She recalls the formality of the dinners. “Our lifestyle in China was a little more formal. We had two servants that would help serve each member of the family with big chopsticks. If you wanted something, you would need to stand up to get it, but we weren’t supposed to do that, there weren’t ‘Lazy Susans’ back then! So we would have to wait to be served.”
My parents not only loved to eat, they knew good food
On the weekends, Cecilia’s parents would bring the family out to different restaurants to try other foods; further piquing Cecelia’s interest in cuisine. “My parents not only loved to eat, they knew good food.” But it was observing her mother at home that left a lasting impression on Cecilia at a young age. “No one was really allowed to go to the kitchen to cook if you were a wealthy family. But my mother had such a good palette. She remembered all the flavors and dishes she had when she was a child and loved to be in the kitchen to instruct the chefs on how to make those beloved dishes.
A strong palette and sense of purpose in the kitchen were passed down to Cecilia who in her young adulthood, would go on to open and operate traditional Chinese restaurants all over California. She did not know it then, nor did she actively pursue a career in the culinary arts. But after coming to San Francisco to visit one of her sisters, she ended up finding her calling after a $10,000 dollar investment tied her to a lease she was forced to maintain and make the best of.
“I started my restaurant in 1960. The first ‘Mandarin Restaurant’ on Polk street. I didn’t mean to stay here and open a restaurant, it just happened. I was trying to negotiate a lease for a friend, they backed out and I had already put ten thousand dollars down. If I backed out, the landlord could keep the deposit. It was a lot of money and it was money my husband gave to me. I felt bad and ashamed and thought, ‘what am I going to do?’ Finally I decided to open a restaurant myself. I really wanted to introduce the real Chinese food to America. Wherever you went at that time it was chop suey and egg drop soup. I looked at this and said ‘my god this is awful. We have so many good dishes. So many delicious foods and nobody knows about it.’ So I told myself, if I want to open this restaurant. I have to introduce true Chinese food to America. When we opened, my menu had over two hundred items. A lot of dishes were never ordered. People would come in saying ‘where is the chop suey? Are you sure this is a Chinese restaurant?’”
People would come in saying, where is the chop suey?
Shifting the public’s perception of Chinese food and restaurants was Cecilia’s ultimate goal, so when she opened The Mandarin, she made sure to focus on service, cleanliness and quality of ingredients. She did everything in her power to make the experience inimitable and wanted patrons to step into a restaurant that exuded opulence. Admittedly, the first couple of years were challenging, as she would have to dispel many preconceived notions of Chinese cuisine. Cecilia who had grown up in a wealthy family and lived in a 52-room palace, found herself not only running the restaurant, teaching the chefs how to execute each dish properly, but had become her own janitor, cleaning the restaurant each night to make sure it upheld a reputation of being immaculate.
Not many could understand what she was trying to do at the time. They thought her restaurant was expensive and they didn’t recognize many of the dishes on the menu, as the other Chinese restaurants in the city had never introduced traditional Northern dishes. Cecilia found herself having to explain her vision to many skeptics. “People thought Chinese food should be cheaper. But I was using the best quality ingredients, I wanted to provide the best service, and I wanted to change the American image of what Chinese food was. I tried very hard.” Her persistence paid off after being open seven months, Cecilia served two men who would turn out to be James Beard and Chuck Williams of Williams-Sonoma.
“I remember the first time James Beard came into the restaurant. He was a very big and tall man, hard to miss! He walked in with another man, shorter with dark hair. I didn’t know anyone or anything at that time. They came in and said, ‘this is the first time we have been here and we don’t know how to order. We heard your food is quite different than others in Chinatown.’ So I gave them a few dishes. They tasted it and James said ‘this really tastes quite different, that’s really something!’” After a few days they came back and had another gentleman join them. He said, ‘do you remember us? We would like to have the char sui pork and some of your other new dishes.’ I still didn’t know who they were. Customers at the other tables had to tell me. They said, ‘Mrs. Chiang, that’s James Beard, do you know James Beard?’ I had never heard of him. ‘He is a very famous chef. Do you know the other gentleman, the short one? That is the owner of Williams Sonoma!’”
It was her naivety paired with her fierce adherence to changing the perception of Chinese cuisine and culture that launched Cecilia into culinary superstardom. Like James Beard and Chuck Williams, the restaurant started to attract regulars and built a loyal following. With the help of journalists including the late Herb Caen, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Mandarin became one of the city’s most popular establishments. Cecilia went on to open three other restaurants including a second Mandarin location in Beverly Hills.
She did everything and anything to make her restaurants a success, even going as far as hand-carrying seafood onto planes from Northern to Southern California. “I was commuting back and forth from San Francisco to Los Angeles every week. This went on for twenty odd years. People would say ‘we love the Dungeness crab!’ But you couldn’t get them in Los Angeles those days. So I put crabs in my luggage and carried them over! I was so crazy you would not believe, but I wanted my customers happy.’” It was that dedication that made her businesses successful for over thirty years.
Although her restaurants closed in 2006, Cecilia remained very invested in the culinary industry. She went on to teach and mentor many of the greats, including her friend Alice Waters. The two still dine out often and as leaders in their field, enjoy working even when they are off duty. Cecilia recalls a recent trip to Europe where the two women went on a tour of Michelin Star restaurants testing the strength of each other’s palettes. “We went to one restaurant where they served us a salad and no one in our group could figure out the dressing. I guessed it was walnut oil and everyone was blown away,” she laughs. “I have a very strong palette!”
The friendships and memories like the one outlined above are the most important gifts she credits the restaurant for. “When I first came to this country I only knew one person, my sister. Besides that I didn’t know anyone. The restaurants allowed me to succeed as a businesswoman and entrepreneur. More importantly, I was able to make so many friends over the years. I am so thankful.”