The news came today that Cecilia Chiang of The Mandarin restaurant has died at the age of 100.
All of this brought back a flood of memories from my childhood.
My father organized family vacations around two possible itineraries. One was hiking and backpacking in the most isolated places he could find. The other was food. He seemed to think nothing of traveling to other cities with no fixed plans except for dining adventures. One of my earliest food memories is jumping on a plane and flying to San Francisco to have dinner at The Mandarin. It was 1963, and the restaurant owned by Cecelia Chiang was considered to be the best Chinese food in the nation. It was a place to see and be seen; frequented by politicians and celebrities for its lavish, authentic food inspired by the dishes she had growing up. Over multiple visits, we dined on minced squab, tea-smoked duck, abalone with mushrooms, seasonal sweet and sour fish (before seasonal was a thing), and Chungking beef. She tutored the intricacies of authentic Chinese food to famous chefs like Julia Child, Jeremiah Tower, Chuck Williams, and James Beard. She won a James Beard Foundation Award for lifetime achievement in 2013, and in 2014 was the subject of a documentary about her life called Soul of a Banquet. It’s available for streaming, and if you have Amazon Prime you can watch it for free.
Her biography reads like something out of a novel. From Wikipedia,
Chiang was born in Wuxi, a town near Shanghai in an aristocratic family of 12 children. At the age of 4, her family moved to Beijing, where she was raised in a 52-room mansion. Her Chinese name, Sun Yun, means “flower of the rue”. As a child she enjoyed elaborate formal meals prepared by the family’s two chefs, although the children were not allowed to cook or go into the kitchen. Her mother had bound feet, but her parents refused to follow the tradition with their children. She escaped with a sister from the Japanese occupation of China in 1942 by walking for nearly six months to Chongqing, where they settled with a relative. She soon met Chiang Liang (江梁), a successful local businessman whom she married, establishing a comfortable life in Shanghai. There they had two children, May and Philip (江一帆). During the war she operated as a spy for America’s Office of Strategic Services. She and her husband escaped from China on the last flight from Shanghai during the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949. With only three tickets for a family of four they had to leave Philip behind with her sister (the family was reunited more than a year later). Her parents and siblings who remained were treated poorly by the communists. Her parents died poor. A brother died in a labor camp and one sister committed suicide. Others were killed by communist soldiers.
Chiang settled in Tokyo, Japan with her husband and children, May Ongbhaibulya and Philip Chiang. In 1960 she came to San Francisco to visit a sister, whose husband had died. Walking through the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown she met two friends from Tokyo who were planning to open a restaurant in a small space at 2209 Polk Street, and agreed to help negotiate their lease. She impulsively wrote a deposit check for $10,000 to secure their rent, which the landlord refused to return after her friends backed out of the venture. Unable to terminate the lease she decided to run the restaurant on her own, although she had never before run a business.
The rest, as they say, is history. Here’s more from NPR.
We went back for more visits over the years as the restaurant grew and moved to a 300 seat space in Ghiradelli Square. In 1991 Chiang sold the restaurant, and on a subsequent visit, I found the food to be forgettable. But the memories are still with me, rushing to the airport in the family VW Bus, the excitement of flying, a new city, and a glamourous restaurant where I could continue my habit of ordering the scariest sounding dishes from the menu. I’ll be making Chinese food tonight and my dog and I will raise a toast to Cecilia and the contribution her restaurant made to memories of eating with my father.