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Bay Area Luminaries Share Memories of Cecilia Chiang, the Life of the Party

Remembering an icon who knew everyone’s name, never stopped moving, and dined out every day she could

Old snapshots of Cecilia Chiang Michelle Min

To speak with everyone whose lives were touched by Bay Area food icon Cecilia Chiang would take decades. The restaurateur, whose fine dining restaurant the Mandarin changed the face of Chinese food in America forever, knew everyone, it seems, from waiters to writers to stars of stage and screen. And somehow, when she died this week at 100 years of age, everyone was surprised, speaking of her boundless energy and vitality as often as they did of her remarkable ability to remember everyone’s name, her love of dining out, and her plainspokenness and wit.

It’s a strange and difficult time to grieve, with the existential dread of the pandemic, the swiftly approaching election, and the inability to safely come together to exchange stories and memories of a woman so widely admired. The remembrances shared here are just a sampling of the impact Chiang had on workers within the food industry (and beyond). If you have one, please pass it along in the comments, below.

Belinda Leong and Cecilia Chiang in 2018
Belinda Leong and Cecilia Chiang in 2018
Michelle Min

Michael Bauer, former SF Chronicle food critic

Everyone who spoke with Eater SF about Chiang noted that up until the pandemic kept her indoors for her safety, she was out and about every day and night. One of her most constant companions was journalist and critic Michael Bauer, who met Chiang in 1986 at Wolfgang Puck’s wedding in Southern California.

But Bauer emphasized that in addition to her many friendships with some of the most famous food figures in the world, “she was a mentor to so many people, especially young Asian women... she sponsored so many people though school,” he says, and was one of the biggest donors, ever, to the city’s Chinese American International School.

Bauer and Chiang would eat out regularly, and every time, Bauer says, “she would command the room... even people who didn’t know who she was would turn, that’s the kind of presence she had.” Bauer has countless memories of late nights spent with Chiang, in which they’d go from party to late-night reservation, closing out spots night after night when she was in her seventies, eighties, and nineties.

One night Bauer recalls in particular, he says, is an evening where they ended up at Park Tavern. “They had a place set up at the bar for us,” he says, and he recalls sitting down with her “then she looked around, beaming, and said ‘I just love restaurants.’” That same night, Chiang ducked into the Park Tavern kitchen “and talked to everyone” with interest and delight. “She wasn’t jaded at all,” he says.

George Chen of China Live

Long before Chen was the man behind Betelnut, Shanghai 1930, and the China Live complex, he was a waiter at Chiang’s groundbreaking restaurant, the Mandarin. Chiang knew Chen’s parents, and he says he remembers her stopping by their house when he was 12 or 13 to play mahjong, where she was introduced to him as Auntie Cecilia. When he enrolled in UC Berkeley, he “needed money,” he says, “so I called up Auntie Cecilia for a job.”

He ended up working at the Mandarin as a waiter from 1979 to 1984, where he says she presided over the dining room “like royalty... always dressed to the nines in her Chinese gowns and real jewelry.” He says that waiters were always thrilled when she’d head to one of their tables, because “she’d put on the charm, and the wine’s pouring, the ducks keep coming... everyone knew that if Cecilia was working my table, I’d [be] getting a bigger tip because she’s going to make sure that’s a really good check.”

Over their 50-year friendship, she went from being his boss to his consultant at his first restaurants, and was eventually a travel companion when, as Chen worked to open China Live four years ago, Chiang announced that she wanted to join him and his chefs on a two-week research trip across Asia. “She was 96, and her family said, ‘No, you’re too old,’ but she came... and she kept up, running through the markets, swinging eels.” It was a vibrancy she had all her life, Chen says. “Through her last days,” Chen says, “she always had her energy. She never wasted a day, and always had something planned.”

Joyce Goldstein formerly of Square One

Joyce Goldstein was the chef and owner of Square One, another star restaurant of the 80s. Now, at 85 years old herself, Goldstein says she aspires to reach 100 years. She remembers many wonderful meals at the Mandarin. “It was a revelation, as all we had were Cantonese restaurants. Her food was new, interesting, and delicious…. Cecilia changed the concept of Chinese food in San Francisco. She understood presentation, drama, and above all, she understood hospitality. I admired her work, her desire to educate the dining public, and how she raised the standards and broadened the repertoire of Chinese cuisine in the Bay Area.”

Mourad Lahlou of Mourad

Mourad Lahlou, the star San Francisco chef behind Mourad and Aziza, calls Chiang “a bright light, a ray of hope, a compass for most of us.”

“I appreciate the legend and her place in the world, but I most miss the true friend... the one who would tell it how it is no matter how much it’d hurt... She didn’t care who you were,” Lahlou says, “but she would tell you if your food touched her soul or if you’re full of shit.”

Lahlou says he met Chiang in the earlier days of Aziza, his restaurant in the Richmond District, and the two became fast friends. She was a guest at his wedding, where “at one point in the night, I was comfortably hanging out with her on the couch, talking shit and telling stories, when she turned her head and asked, ‘Are we gonna dance or what?’ It was so beautiful that I escorted her to the main stage and we danced away... people went nuts to see her move so gracefully and joyfully. It was a highlight of the wedding and a moment I will never forget.

“I will miss her presence, wisdom, and advice about food, people, and mostly life,” Lahlou says, making sure to add, “Ohhh, and she fucking hated Trump.”

Belinda Leong of B. Patisserie

Belinda Leong considered Chiang a close friend and mentor, as she’s already written about for Eater SF. She says she never felt the considerable age gap between them, and the pair hung out once or twice a week. She loved how Chiang was always the last to leave the party, how she never required a reading light to peruse a menu, how she hated the trend of skinny jeans, and how she liked to steam her fish in shower caps, well before Saran Wrap invented a similar product.

And Leong treasures certain pearls of wisdom, which she attributes to Chiang: “Before she went to bed, she would go over in her head, ‘Did I finish everything I wanted to do today? Did I accidentally offend or hurt anyone today? Do I need to apologize to anyone?’ And if everything checked off, she would go to bed or she would know who she needed to contact in the morning. … I believe she confirmed, ‘You need to follow your own vision and be happy with every moment in life.’”

Dennis Leung of Palette Tea House

Dennis Leung first welcomed Cecilia Chiang as a guest at Dragon Beaux and again at Palette Tea House, which is just steps away from the Mandarin’s million-dollar home in Ghirardelli Square, where it presided through the ’70s and ’80s. Leung did not know her well, but was delighted to serve her at both dim sum brunch destinations. He found her to be genuine, honest, and insightful, not holding back opinions and advice on their food.

“For myself, I grew up in Hong Kong, so I’m used to high-standard Chinese food. However, in America, Chinese food can be seen as a lesser cuisine. Her effort paved the way for Chinese (and other Asian) food culture to blossom in America,” says Leung. He hopes to uphold that legacy in the neighborhood. “As Cecilia built her legend at Ghirardelli Square, her passing reminds us of the significance of holding the highest standard for ourselves. At this historical location, we need to make sure we give Chinese cuisine the respect it deserves.”

Aaron Paul of Macondray

The Mandarin originally opened in 1959, 1960, or 1961, depending on who you talk to, in a smaller location on Polk Street that Macondray cocktail bar currently calls home. “I feel honored every day that I get to inhabit the space that this legendary lady once spent time in,” owner Aaron Paul wrote in a Facebook post. “I’m typing this post in her old office.” Chatting with Eater SF, he added that he never had the pleasure of meeting Chiang, but of course heard all about her from industry friends. “She’s a fucking legend… One of my first mentors told me, she’s 88 years old, but she still drinks Champagne and goes out to parties, and I just thought God, I want to be her when I grow up.”

Paul didn’t know the past life of the space until a local known as “the historian of Polk Street” enlightened him. Paul does believe in spirits and feels her energy. “She’s one of those inspirations, one of those in-it-for-her-entire-life restaurant people,” he says. “Look, I’m just a white guy selling chicken tendies,” wildly underselling the beautiful renovation he did on this space. “But I only hope to have as long of a career as she had.”

Many of Chiang’s friends have also published loving tributes, sharing anecdotes and photos of the woman they deemed a legend. Here are just a few highlights:

Charles Chen of Basuku Cheesecake

View this post on Instagram

It’s been really difficult to articulate the sense of loss with the passing of my dear friend and mentor, Madame Cecilia Chiang. I was fortunate to have known her in a unique way for the better part of the last 10 years and have much to thank her for being where I am today. Cecilia was the closest thing I’ve had to family in SF and I am forever grateful to her for taking me under her wing, everything she has taught me about Chinese food, the politics of the City and just plain about life. Cecilia is someone you would go to for straight up advice because she wouldn’t hesitate to let you know if she thought you were making a bad decision. Even for someone who’s Rolodex contained the numbers of some of the most influential people in the world, she would always make time to call when she heard something nice or invite me out to eat when she thought I hadn’t had Chinese food in awhile. She was such an incredible mentor and would always remind me about old school values that she thought was getting lost amongst the younger generation today. If you ever met her, even in passing, she likely made an impression and somehow would remember you the next time. Her energy was infectious and truly was a class act. They simply do not make them like Cecilia Chiang anymore and nobody will ever come close. The impact she had on the food and beverage industry is immeasurable, especially for Asian Americans. The doors that she opened even while enduring extreme hardship, paved the way for so many future generations, whether you knew it or not. You are already missed Cecilia. Thank you for everything you taught me and all the doors you opened for me, but also for welcoming me to the family. I am forever grateful I’m sure you are up there now smiling down at all of us with a glass of bubbles in your hand. Cheers to you Cecilia Rest in Power ❤️

A post shared by Charles (@charleschen66) on

Traci Des Jardins formerly of Jardiniere

Corey Lee of Benu

Nancy Oakes of Boulevard

Gayle Pirie and John Clark of Foreign Cinema

Alice Waters of Chez Panisse