Meet Cecilia Chiang, the woman who changed Chinese cuisine

Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — You may not know her name but no doubt you know the flavors and food of Mandarin China she introduced to the U.S. 

For one thing, they show up on the menu of the national P. F. Chang’s restaurant chain co-founded by her son, Phillip.

Cecilia Chiang, who arrived in San Francisco decades ago, is a revolutionary in the food world.

Chef Alice Waters says Chiang has done for Chinese cuisine in America what Julia Child did for French cuisine.

KRON4’s Pam Moore spent time learning about this amazing woman who is now 100 years young.

“For Chinese cooking, most important is clever,” Chiang explains as she chops a vegetable. “One cleaver do all the tricks, you don’t need gadgets.” 

A century of living, and Chiang is still in charge of the kitchen. 

This petit woman stands tall in the food industry. 

The big names who are her friends all acknowledge that she changed Chinese food in America. 

“Cecilia is like culinary royalty. Everybody reveres her,” Emerald Yeh said. 

Emerald Yeh is with the James Beard Awards Committee and is a dear friend. 

“Chinese food back then was kinda gloppy Americanized food,” Yeh said. “She just saw what a huge gap and how it did not reflect true Chinese cuisine. She is excellent with Asian and non-Asian food.”

When she arrived in San Francisco from China in the 1950s she was going to help friends open a restaurant but they bailed, leaving her to do it on her own. 

“I was the bus boy. I was the host. I was the one answer the phone making reservations. Everything,” Chiang explains. 

After years of hard work, The Mandarin with its iconic red door opened on Polk Street. 

It wasn’t an easy start. Cantonese cooking dominated the U.S. generally with its lighter flavors, rice, chop suey and egg foo young. 

The Mandarin style is spicier, uses oil and more wheat for its noodles and buns. The tastes were largely unknown to Americans then. 

“A lot of people thought it’s not gonna work, she’s gonna fail but she did it and succeeded,” said Vera Chan, co-owner of Yank-Sing Restaurant.

The Mandarin on Polk took off, so then in an even gutsier move, Chiang relocated to Ghiradelli Square and later added Mandarin Beverly Hills where the stars came in droves. 

“I feel proud,” Chiang said. “I want to introduce not just the food, the culture to Americans.”

“She had a lot of influence on me,” said three-star Michelin Chef Corey Lee. “She faced enormous challenges and she persevered through all that. And that’s really a testament to her resilience and how sharp she is.”

She was one of 12 children living through Japans’ war with China, communism and constant political turmoil. These challenges dominated their lives. 

Through it all, she got a college education, got married, and then, in the U.S. changed her life and touched so many others.

“She’s a role model as a business owner, as a leader, as someone who’s mentored so many people and she’s a true friend in every sense of the word,” Lee said. 

Cecilia, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, dines out with friends regularly, keeps her own schedule, does everything in moderation, and enjoys every moment. 

“I’m a very happy person,” she said. 

Among her many honors,  she has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation.

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