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Bay Area Culinary Icon Cecilia Chiang Dies at Age 100

Known as the woman behind Chinese food in America, Cecilia Chiang was one of the Bay Area’s most beloved food figures

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Cecilia Chiang, culinary pioneer
Michelle Min

Cecilia Chiang, the Shanghai-born restaurateur who revolutionized the national food scene with her approach to Northern Chinese cuisine, died this week, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. She was 100 years old.

Born on September 18, 1920 to a wealthy family in Wuxi, Chiang was raised in Beijing in a 52-room mansion. During China’s war with Japan, Chiang and her sister, “disguised as peasants” (Saveur wrote in 2000) fled hundreds of miles to Sichuan. That was the first of many escapes from war-torn areas, as Chiang — by then married to Chiang Liang — fled to Japan, and again the the U.S.

In the late 1950s, Chiang paid a visit to her sister in San Francisco, where she met two aspiring restaurateurs who asked her help to open a restaurant on Polk Street, the Marin Independent-Journal wrote in 2007. She invested $10,000 and signed the lease, thinking that was the end of it ... but then her partners backed out.

“I decided I would try to make the best of it,” Chiang wrote in her memoir, The Seventh Daughter. “First I would try to make the restaurant a success. Then I would tell Chiang Liang.” That restaurant was the Mandarin, which opened with a menu of about 300 dishes, a far cry from the Chinese takeout-and-delivery spots that dominated the market at the time. Speaking with B. Patisserie founder Belinda Leong, Chiang says she was told “‘You don’t serve Cantonese food. You don’t serve chop suey; the only Chinese food people know is chop suey.’ I said, ‘I just try to do my best.’ I wanted to introduce the real Chinese food to America. That’s how I did it.”

The service was also different than what Americans had grown to expect, Chiang says. “All my waiters were from UC Berkeley, spoke good English, were from really nice families. Those days when you went to Chinatown: ‘Sweet and sour pork, No. 2.’ They called numbers to serve. Those days, they just put the plate down, just threw it on the table. No tablecloths, no carpets in Chinatown. No seats, just a bench.”

Within a year the Mandarin was a hit with local notables like novelist C.Y. Lee and newspaper columnist Herb Caen, a level of success that helped Chiang decide to extend her stay in SF. She sent for her kids and bought a home in St. Francis Wood, reportedly the first non-white homeowner in the neighborhood.

By 1968, the Mandarin had grown out of its digs, and Chiang relocated the restaurant to a 300-seat space inside the then-new Ghirardelli Square complex. The buildout for the luxurious dining room reportedly clocked in at more than a million dollars (adjusted for inflation, that’s about $7.5 million today). She opened a second iteration of the Mandarin in Beverly Hills in 1975, serving Hollywood glitterati, and in the ’80s opened Mandarette Chinese Cafe with her son Philip, who would eventually found the PF Chang’s chain.

She sold the Mandarin in 1991, but remained active in the business, writing two books, scoring the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, and traveling with folks like Alice Waters, who Chiang called “a very good friend. We’ve been together to Europe ... maybe five times. We covered all these three-star Michelin restaurants. And one day we went to a restaurant in Europe that was hard to get into. But somehow James Beard said if we really wanted to go, he could call somebody and make a reservation for us.”

In 2014, Chiang was the subject of a documentary by Joy Luck Club director Wayne Wang called Soul of a Banquet, in which she tells the story of her life as she prepares a special dinner for the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse. (It’s available on Amazon Prime video.)

She was also a regular on the San Francisco dining and events scene, making frequent appearances at openings and galas. At age 98, she said “I go out a lot with friends. I love to eat out ... I think it’s very important, especially when you’re getting older, to have really good friends, because your own kids marry, have children, they move to somewhere. You need good friends to keep you company.” About a decade ago, this correspondent shared a table with her at an SF Restaurant Week event, during which some of the city’s biggest names queued up 10 deep to pay their respects. She said everyone’s name even before they could introduce themselves to her, and was unfailingly gracious.

Speaking with Leong in 2018, Chiang said that she was often asked how she managed to live such a long, fruitful life. “The first thing I must say, I have to thank my ancestors,” she said. “We have good genes. ... Another thing is I try to learn Chinese moderation. I really believe that: Never overeat, or never overdrink. Never overdo it.”