Nearly 30 years after selling her groundbreaking restaurant, Cecilia Chiang is still making an impact on Chinese food in America.

By Nina Friend
Updated January 15, 2020
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Credit: Siena Chiang/Visi Cano Mooradian

When Lucas Sin, the chef of Junzi Kitchen in New York City, found out that Cecilia Chiang would be celebrating her 99th birthday at his restaurant, he spent weeks creating a menu that reflected Chiang’s legacy. It was a daunting task considering that Chinese food as we know it in America, dishes like Kung Pao Chicken and Smoked Tea Duck, can be traced back to the San Francisco restaurant Chiang opened in 1961, the Mandarin.

Sin kept ignoring a feeling that the menu he worked so hard on just didn’t feel right. And then, the night before the birthday dinner, he scrapped the plan and chose to serve Chiang the humble, fast casual Chinese food he makes at Junzi Kitchen every day: smashed cucumbers, braised beef shank, chun bing. “More than anything, I wanted to show her that we did what we did in her footsteps,” Sin said. “Junzi Kitchen would not exist without Cecilia.”

By “what we did,” Sin means, “show Americans that Chinese food could be different from what they thought Chinese food should be.” This is exactly what Chiang set out to do nearly six decades ago. And today, as Chiang nears her 100th birthday in September, she continues to be the beacon people like Sin look toward as an example of how to succeed.

Chiang's recipe for Shanghai Stir-Fried Pork with Cabbage, published in Food & Wine in January 2012.

When Chiang came to the United States, Chinese food was limited to Americanized Cantonese creations like chop suey and chow mein. Though she didn’t intend to open a restaurant (the story goes that Chiang helped out friends who were planning to open a restaurant by paying their landlord $10,000, and when the friends backed out, she had no choice but to open up her own spot), once Chiang had the space, she made it her business to change the perception of Chinese food in America. Chop suey was inauthentic, but mapo tofu was the real thing, and Chiang wanted to serve her guests real Chinese food.

During the early 1960s, the Chinese population in the U.S. was primarily Cantonese. According to Peter Kim, Director of the Museum of Food and Drink, this context helped Chiang’s vision come to life. “Against this backdrop, Chiang's influence was paradigm-shifting,” Kim said. “She introduced Americans to an entirely new set of flavors from Northern China, Sichuan, and Hunan.”

Yet Chiang’s legacy extends beyond food. Throughout her career, she broke barriers and helped move the restaurant industry forward. “Simply by succeeding as a non-white, female-identifying, ESL immigrant, she is an inspiration to people with marginalized identities who are seeking respect and recognition for their culture through cooking,” said Chiang’s granddaughter, Siena Chiang.

Chiang’s culinary students over the years included James Beard and Julia Child. She has mentored food legends from Ruth Reichl to Belinda Leong, and Chiang’s son, Philip, co-founded the global mega-chain P.F. Chang's. Even though she no longer owns a restaurant, she still mentors and consults, and finds herself in constant motion.

“What keeps my grandmother going is the fact that she never stops,” Siena said. “She’s always doing something: cleaning, cooking, reading the news, talking on the phone, making plans, exercising, and of course eating and drinking champagne.”

Chiang would likely agree. “I’m still quite active, and I love to work,” she said. “It keeps me busy. And also it keeps me young.”

Get Cecilia's recipe for Shanghai Stir-Fried Pork with Cabbage.

A Century of Cecilia

1920: Chiang is born in Wuxi, a city near Shanghai. She’s the seventh daughter of 12 children and grows up in a Ming Dynasty palace that has 52 rooms.

1942: Chiang flees Beijing, walking 1,000 miles over a course of six months to escape Japanese occupation. She resettles in Shanghai and starts a family.

1949: Chiang once again has to leave home because of the Chinese Communist Revolution. She flees to Tokyo with her husband and daughter. Her son stays in Taipei with one of Chiang’s sisters and joins them in Japan two years later. Chiang and her husband open a 350-seat restaurant called Forbidden City.

1959: Chiang visits her sister in San Francisco, not intending to stay there long term.

1961: Chiang opens the Mandarin on Polk Street in San Francisco; the restaurant has 55 seats and there are 300 items on the menu.

1967: Chiang moves the Mandarin to a larger, 300-seat location in Ghirardelli Square to meet demand. She hosts a sold-out banquet celebrating the opening, and tickets go for $250 a piece ($1,816.44 in 2020 dollars).

1991: Chiang sells the Mandarin to focus on consulting, teaching, and charity work.

1993: Philip Chiang founds P.F. Chang's.

2013: Chiang receives the James Beard Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award.

2020: Chiang turns 100 on September 18, 2020.