Cecilia Chiang, the elegant San Francisco restaurateur who introduced generations of Americans to the authentic provincial cooking of her native country, earning the title the “Julia Child of Chinese food,” died Wednesday at home in San Francisco. She was 100.
A granddaughter, Siena Chiang, confirmed her death. She did not cite a specific cause but said it was not related to the novel coronavirus.
The seventh daughter in an elite family in Beijing, Chiang was a child of privilege, living in a 52-room mansion with servants and cooks. Her upbringing could not have prepared her for the hardships ahead: a 1,000-mile journey across China to avoid Japanese invaders; a hasty flight off the mainland during the Communist revolution; and an unlikely entry into the hospitality business, first in Tokyo and later in San Francisco, with no experience running restaurants.
Her son, Philip, would later cofound one of the most recognizable names in Chinese dining, P.F. Chang’s.
Chiang established herself as owner at the Mandarin in San Francisco. From 1961 to 1991, at two incarnations of the restaurant, she greeted customers and watched over every detail of the establishment that redefined Chinese cuisine for many Western diners, chefs and celebrities.
Under her guidance, the Mandarin rejected the orthodoxy of Chinese restaurants in mid-20th-century America: It didn’t serve chop suey or watered-down Cantonese dishes. It wasn’t located in Chinatown, and it didn’t deal in cultural stereotypes. (No red, no gold, no dragons, no lanterns, Chiang insisted.)
The Mandarin’s second location — a million-dollar project that opened in 1968 in a mid-19th-century building where Ghirardelli chocolates were once produced — grafted Western-style service on Chinese regional cooking in a setting that rivaled the finest French restaurants.
The Mandarin’s menus ventured well beyond the cornstarch-coated stir-fry dishes that many Americans understood as Chinese food. Offerings included tea-smoked duck, prawns a la Sichuan, hot-and-sour soup, soup dumplings and other specialties from China’s provinces.
“Because of Cecilia Chiang’s personality, culinary ambitions, and decades of what might be called outreach, her take on Chinese cuisine, exemplified by her restaurant, has had an immense effect on how Chinese food has been consumed and understood in the United States,” Yale University history professor Paul Freedman wrote in his book “Ten Restaurants That Changed America.”
Chiang, who adopted the name Cecilia as a young woman, was born Sun Yun in 1920 in Wuxi, outside of Shanghai, and was the 10th of 12 children. Her parents moved the family to Beijing when Chiang was 4 and settled into their palatial home, where children were not permitted in the kitchen and servants did all the cooking.
Her father was a prosperous engineer. Her mother ran the household with a hypercritical eye, although she could stand only for short periods. Her feet had been bound — broken, folded and set at four inches — in the Chinese “lotus feet” custom that dated back centuries.
Chiang’s father refused to bind his daughters’ feet, a progressive stance that would help two of his girls flee Beijing on an icy January morning in 1942, several years after Japanese soldiers seized the city.
With food rations running low, Chiang and her sister Qin fled Beijing largely on foot for the faraway city of Chongqing, where leader Chiang Kai-shek had established a provincial capital for the Nationalist government. The sisters were robbed by a Japanese soldier. They survived Japanese aerial attacks. At times they subsisted on flour and water.
Chiang married businessman Chiang Liang in 1945 and had two children while living in Shanghai after World War II. The Communist army’s march into the city forced the couple to flee on the last commercial flight out of town. They had only three tickets for Tokyo and left their son, Philip, in the care of Chiang’s sister, who took the boy to the Nationalist stronghold of Taiwan. The family reunited more than a year later.
In Tokyo, Chiang and a small group of her friends opened a restaurant they called the Forbidden City. Its menu included Chinese dumplings, Peking duck and shark fin soup, a hit among Chinese refugees and Japanese natives.
“She is very much a person who has never let fate push her around,” said author and former restaurant critic Ruth Reichl in “Soul of a Banquet,” a 2014 documentary about Chiang.
In 1960, Chiang learned from her sister Sun that Sun’s husband had died and that she was alone in San Francisco. Chiang secured a three-month visa to visit the States. During her stay, two Chinese friends persuaded Chiang to help open a restaurant. Chiang negotiated a 10-year lease and wrote a $10,000 check for the deposit.
Within days, the two partners pulled out. The landlord informed Chiang that her deposit was nonrefundable. “I was embarrassed to admit to my husband that I had come to America and lost $10,000 of his money,” she wrote in her memoir and recipe book “The Seventh Daughter” (2007). “I decided I would try to make the best of it.”
Through her diplomatic contacts, Chiang obtained an extended visa to remain in the United States. She struggled at first with the Mandarin: the menu was too large, she struggled to locate ingredients, and she was forced to pay exorbitant prices for products from Taiwan.
But she had a secret weapon: a married couple who made their own wrappers for pork-and-cabbage dumplings, which were pan-fried into pot stickers. The dumplings quickly became an attraction at the Mandarin. A rave in print from the popular San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen in 1963 established her as a force in the Bay Area’s food circles.
But even Caen’s seal of approval did not insulate Chiang from prejudice when she required a larger space in the new Ghirardelli Square development. An agent told her the other tenants were concerned about the “sanitation standards” of a Chinese restaurant. Outraged, Chiang invited the agent to visit the Mandarin. A rental agreement arrived the next day.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Mandarin became a magnet for tourists, chefs and celebrities. Its 300-seat dining room attracted John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Henry Kissinger and the king of Denmark, and Oscar-winning couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Chiang also hosted cooking classes at the Mandarin with students including Alice Waters, Chuck Williams (founder of Williams-Sonoma), Julia Child, James Beard and actor Danny Kaye.
Chiang opened a second Mandarin in Beverly Hills in 1975, a few years after the San Francisco Culinary Workers’ Union targeted the Mandarin on Ghirardelli Square, calling it a “sweatshop.”
The Beverly Hills restaurant never matched the San Francisco original in its cachet, and Chiang ceded control of the L.A. business to her son in the mid-1980s. But she successfully beat the workers’ challenge: In the late 1970s, she won a libel suit against the union for its damaging words. “They didn’t realize I’m very stubborn,” she later told the San Francisco Chronicle.
In 1991, Chiang sold the Mandarin in San Francisco. The restaurant closed in 2006. In semiretirement, she continued to consult for other restaurants and host private dinners. In 2013, she won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation, and, in 2016, she was the subject of “The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang,” a six-part cooking miniseries on PBS.
Her husband remained in Toyko when Chiang moved to San Francisco. They did not divorce but never lived together again. He died in 1992. Survivors include their two children, May Ongbhaibulya and Philip Chiang; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
While Chiang had spent decades delivering high-end, authentic Chinese cuisine to American diners, her son had another clientele in mind. In 1993, Philip Chiang and restaurateur Paul Fleming opened in Scottsdale, Ariz., their first P.F. Chang’s, a casual Chinese restaurant that catered to mainstream Americans. It eventually grew into a multinational chain.
“I liked the fancier food that my mom had,” Philip Chiang once said, “but I craved more everyday food — casual dining, instead of fancy that my mom was doing.”