Cecilia Chiang
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Cecilia Chiang

Carolyn Jung / January 2012

Food Arts presents the January/February 2012 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Cecilia Chiang, who opened the landmark restaurant The Mandarin in San Francisco to serve the authentic flavors of her native Shanghai, and in so doing, ushered in a new era of fine Northern Chinese cuisine never before savored in this country. At a time in San Francisco when cookie-cutter Cantonese restaurants abounded in Chinatown—all offering the same chow mein, egg foo young, and sweet-and-sour pork—Chiang opened her 65 seat restaurant in 1961 on Polk Street, of all places, intent on shaking things up. With no business background and little cooking experience, Chiang was determined to oversee the restaurant on her own after her original partners backed out.

“I wanted to educate Americans and serve real Chinese food,” she says. “Maybe that was my destiny. The Chinese believe in that.”

It took a while for the food to catch on, though. In her second year, she was still hemorrhaging money. It took the likes of Herb Caen to change that. The legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist was so spellbound by the meal he ate at The Mandarin that he wrote about it. Suddenly, the restaurant’s phone began ringing off the hook with diners clamoring to try Chiang’s minced squab in lettuce cups, tea-smoked duck, and beggar’s chicken.

Riding on that success, she moved the restaurant in 1968 to a prominent spot in Ghirardelli Square, expanding it to 300 seats. With its ivory-tipped chopsticks and crystal soy sauce cruets, the elegant restaurant attracted the likes of Julia Child, Paul Newman, and John Lennon. Her cooking classes there were attended by none other than James Beard and Alice Waters.

Chiang retired in 1991, selling the restaurant to her staff. It continued on until 2006, but was never the same. Its place in culinary history, though, remains undiminished. Indeed, a place setting and menu from The Mandarin will go on display soon in the Smithsonian.

Chiang never imagined life like this. Born into wealth, her family lost everything during the Japanese occupation of China in the late 1930s. At one point, Chiang and a sister had to flee, walking 1,000 miles for six months to find safety with a relative. At 92 now—and still as regal looking as ever while she pours a cup of tea in her San Francisco penthouse—Chiang still travels to China annually, most recently with Waters to help cook an organic dinner for VIPs at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. She has raised two children: May, 65, and Philip, 62, co-founder of P.F. Chang’s. And she remains a valued mentor to young chefs.

“People call me a culinary revolutionary,” she says. “I just thought that if I created something really good, I would do well.”