Cecelia Chiang: The Root of Chinese Food in the U.S.
Cecilia Chiang is credited with introducing Americans to the taste of authentic Chinese food, though that wasn’t her initial plan.
Chiang wasn’t a chef and hadn’t intended to be an American restaurateur. It was a case of an investment falling apart. As the story goes, in the early ’60s she loaned friends some money to open a restaurant in San Francisco. Except they backed out at the last minute and in order to save the deal, Chiang decided to do it herself. "Maybe it was my destiny," she said during a recent interview.
In time, that business grew into the city’s famed Mandarin restaurant, forever changing Chinese food in America. It’s a story few Americans know, but many more soon will. Chiang’s life is the subject of a new documentary film, "Soul of a Banquet," directed by Wayne Wang (who also directed "The Joy Luck Club").
The film follows Chiang as she prepares a banquet to honor the 40th anniversary of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant. The film - an unfinished version of which was screened during the weekend at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival - weaves in details of Chiang’s life in China before she came to the U.S., as well as her family’s struggles while she was running the Mandarin.
Chiang, 94, grew up in China at a time when servants did the cooking. She attended college in Beijing, but thought she’d never need to work. When the communists came to power, Chiang and her family fled to Japan.
A few years later around 1960, she visited her sister in the U.S. She had no plans to stay, but while there made a loan to friends looking to open a restaurant. When the deal fell apart, she couldn’t get her money back on the lease, so she went into business on her own.