By Stephanie Martin
Stars of the U.S. culinary scene gathered this evening in New York City for the prestigious James Beard Foundation awards.
San Francisco resident Cecilia Chiang, 93 years old and a good friend of the late James Beard, received this year’s award for lifetime achievement.
Chiang is celebrated as an ambassador of classic Chinese cuisine, a woman who introduced Americans to authentic dishes such as Peking duck and spring rolls at a time when not-so-authentic fare — think egg foo yong and chop suey — reigned supreme.
I met with her recently at her home in Pacific Heights, where we talked about her life and career. We began by talking about Mandarin, the upscale restaurant she opened in the early 1960s on Polk Street and later moved to Ghirardelli Square. Here are some edited excerpts from that interview:
Stephanie Martin: You grew up speaking Mandarin, although in San Francisco’s Chinatown most people speak Cantonese. How difficult was it to come to San Francisco speaking Mandarin?
Cecilia Chiang: Very hard. When I first came, in 1958, I had a very difficult time understanding. They also didn’t understand me. And when I started the Mandarin restaurant, I had a hard time. When I went to Chinatown to buy the produce and the meat, they didn’t give me any credit. I had to pay everything in cash. I also had a hard time because I’m a woman.
Martin: I was going to ask about that. As a female restaurant owner, you must have been very rare? Chiang: Later I found out most restaurant owners and chefs were male! But I was so naive. You see, I bought the Mandarin — the location — by mistake.
Martin: Yes, I understand you were visiting San Francisco from Tokyo, where you lived at the time, and tried to help some friends who wanted to open a restaurant. You wrote a $10,000 check for the security deposit. Then they basically said, “Uh, we don’t want to do this anymore.”
Chiang: They backed out. At first, I thought, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I think I can get the deposit back.” So, I went to the landlord. I said, “They are backed out, they don’t want to open anymore. And I have to go back to Tokyo.” The landlord said, “I’m sorry, but by law I have the right to keep the deposit.”
So, finally, I decided, I’ll just try my best to open the restaurant. But I was determined — I said, “If I’m going to open a Chinese restaurant, no more chop suey!”
Martin: Chop suey is not considered authentic Chinese food, but it was very common in Chinatown back then. What was it?
Chiang: They chopped some vegetables, some meat — whatever they had — and then they stir-fried it. Those days I remember they used a lot of celery because it was cheap. Also, canned bamboo shoots — a lot of things from the can. In China, we’d never heard of such a thing! Martin: So, when you opened Mandarin, you put something like 200 dishes on the menu. Why so much?
Chiang: I didn’t know what people would like. So, I just remembered whatever I had when I was a child in China, and I just put everything I remembered on the menu. Quite a few dishes never got one order!
Martin: Which dishes turned out to be the most popular ?
Chiang: The most popular was the minced squab. The squab is deboned, cut up very small and sauteed with black mushrooms, Virginia ham and water chestnuts. And it’s wrapped with lettuce leaf. That was probably the best seller. Also smoked tea duck, Peking duck and red-cooked pork.
Martin: Do you miss being in the restaurant industry?
Chiang: Yes and no. I retired at 70 — not young. But I actually never really retired. I did some consulting work and opened quite a few restaurants, like Betelnut and Shanghai. I also did some work in New York and Miami Beach, Fla. Martin: Do you still cook?
Chiang: I still cook, and I go out to eat quite often. But whenever I want Chinese food, I cook at home.