By Andrea Stuart. Photos by Kevin Thomas
In Homage: Cecilia Chang
It is not hyperbole to state that Cecilia Chang is responsible for changing the way Americans think of, and eat, Chinese food. The proprietress of San Francisco’s pioneering Mandarin restaurant, Chang confessed that she was not a cook. Having been raised in China by an esteemed family, she was not allowed in the kitchen. But this ‘seventh daughter,’ as she was called in her youth, claimed a fine palate and a photographic memory for the beloved dishes on which she was raised, and which she replicated for the legions of fans who flocked to her Ghirardelli Square hot spot for sophisticated and authentic Asian fare. Chang passed away recently at the age of 100. In homage, we reprise this 2013 feature, written by our own Andrea Stuart who beautifully captures Chang’s charisma and elegance. This iconic restaurateur and tastemaker will be missed.
Cecilia Chiang is a prism of optimism, an icon of prosperity in the face of adversity. Her life, a collage of inspirational stories, justifies how this doyenne of Chinese cuisine became the first Asian woman to earn the (2013) James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award at 93 years young.
Cecilia’s San Francisco penthouse is a collage of Chinese artifacts and furnishings, highlighted by flora. A white orchid centerpiece garnishes an oversized coffee table
accompanied by neat stacks of culinary magazines. Rays of sun bounce off of the interior, adding brightness to the seemingly permanent smile that wears Cecilia. One of 12 children, Cecilia is the seventh-born daughter and refers to her siblings in numerical fashion. “I’m from a family with 12 children; nine are girls. We had the same parents, no concubine!” A chuckle escapes from her. The family employed two chefs: one who cooked Shanghainese and one who cooked northern Chinese. Her mother, having bound feet and limited ability to stand, was “staff director,” and raised her children with a keen awareness for food.
Despite running from the Communist party several times, Cecilia speaks of her upbringing with an airy disposition. The family appreciated many indulgences, attending the Chinese opera, watching movies, and visiting parks abundant in colorful vegetation, peppered with tea houses and fine dining restaurants. Springtime invited the rowing of boats. In winter, when the ground was dusted in snow, they skated on frozen lakes. “We went to a lot of movies, too, because we owned two theaters. I remember a lot of old movies like Charlie Chaplin,” her eyes sparkle as she jests. “In those days, most movies were silent, so you just watch it and not know what is going on!”
As season box owners at the opera, the Chiangs rotated bringing the children to shows. “It was fun to get dressed up in Chinese chi poa,” says Cecilia. “Because everyone was eating something, you know what they did?” Cecilia leans forward, pulls her arm back, and throws an imaginary object. “They rolled a hot towel really tight, then, threw it at the box where the servant caught it and handed it to you to wash.” She laughs as she leans back. “They don’t do that anymore.”
Just after college, Cecilia and Sister Number 5 fled on foot from Beijing to near Shanghai. “The Japanese were bombing everything in the daytime. We tried to walk at night so that we wouldn’t be a target,” she shares. Later, she married and started a family in Shanghai. Sadly, she left everything while fleeing to Japan to avoid Communist invasion.
In her thirties, Cecilia became immersed in a cultural paradox while living among American-born Chinese when she moved to San Francisco to be with recently widowed Sister Number 6. Then, a business deal gone awry made Cecilia the restaurateur of The Mandarin. “I had never worked in my whole life, never been in a kitchen.” But a keen sense of flavor and a memory like a steel trap helped her create a world-class menu that put the local Cantonese food to shame. “There was sweet and sour everywhere!” Cecilia’s arms fly open to make a point. Thus, began Cecilia’s mission to change the American perception of Chinese food.
Cecilia’s grin becomes infectious as she retells one of her favorite stories about meeting James Beard. “Two men came in my restaurant. One was so big and so tall. Another was very short and fat,” her laugh echoes. “A very odd couple.” At their request, Cecilia served them a variety of food. A week later, they returned. It wasn’t until later, while serving another table, that she was informed who those men were—James Beard and Chuck Williams—and why they were important. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Cecilia’s chicken gizzard with pork stomach—one of Beard’s favorites—fertilized their friendship. This pattern of events repeated itself as she befriended icon after icon, from Julia Child to Jefferson Airplane. A virtual catalogue of cultural luminaries pictorially lines Cecilia’s bedroom. A photo of Cecilia with Freddie Mercury sits bedside. Black and white family photos line dressers. In the kitchen, a small table is blanketed in Chinese
periodicals and magazines. She points out several articles, including one about her son, Philip, co-founder of P.F. Chang’s, and another that features Cecilia on a 160-year timeline about Chinese food.
Retired from the restaurant business, Cecilia spends much time traveling the world, many times with her good friend, Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse. Her sister, Sophie (Sister Number 6), is 100 and lives in San Jose. Cecilia’s voices breaks into a girlish giggle. “I talk to her just about every day. She still cooks!” And while Cecilia eats out a lot, she cooks at home when she wants Chinese. At the end of the day, she is a composite of admiration—chef, author, mother, and freedom seeker—who is living a beautiful life.