Chiang, who opened the groundbreaking San Francisco restaurant the Mandarin in 1961, has been called the mother of Chinese food in America.

By Maria Yagoda
October 28, 2020
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Credit: Siena Chiang/Visi Cano Mooradian

Cecilia Chiang, the chef behind the iconic San Francisco restaurant the Mandarin, has died, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

The award-winning chef and restaurateur was a giant in the Bay Area food world, and often called the mother of Chinese cooking in America. Many dishes that now seem ubiquitous in the U.S., like kung pao chicken and smoked tea duck, can be traced back to Chiang and her menus at the Mandarin.

Lucas Sin, the chef at fast-casual Junzi Kitchen in New York City, credits the chef with showing "Americans that Chinese food could be different from what they thought Chinese food should be,” he told us in a January feature on Chiang. "Junzi Kitchen would not exist without Cecilia." 

According to the Chronicle, Chiang died on Tuesday or Wednesday, of unknown causes. Chiang was born in Wuxi, a city near Shanghai, in 1920. The seventh daughter of 12 children, she lived in Beijing until 1942.

"I was a student in Beijing during World War II,” she told us. “To flee occupied China, I walked with my sister to Chongqing; it took close to six months. Crossing different provinces, I found out the foods are quite different. In the north, for instance, people eat a lot of sorghum, millet and wheat instead of rice. In Shanghai homes, this stir-fried cabbage-and-pork recipe is typical."

Chiang fled again in 1949, this time to Tokyo during the Chinese Communist Revolution, joined by her husband and daughter. In 1959, she visited her sister in San Francisco, not planning to stay there long. She did.

When Chiang opened the Mandarin in 1961, the Chinese population in the U.S. was largely Cantonese, which affected the kind of Chinese cooking that most Americans were exposed to. “Against this backdrop, Chiang's influence was paradigm-shifting,” Peter Kim, the director of Museum of Food and Drink, told us in January. “She introduced Americans to an entirely new set of flavors from Northern China, Sichuan, and Hunan.”

Chiang, whose culinary students included luminaries like James Beard and Julia Child, continued to stay active well into her ninth decade, telling us last year: "I’m still quite active, and I love to work. It keeps me busy. And also it keeps me young.”

Her son, Philip, co-founded the mega-chain P.F. Changs; she also counted her granddaughter, Siena Chiang, as a mentee. The chef received the James Beard Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.

“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,” Siena Chiang told us.

According to the Chronicle, Chiang's voter registration lists her birthday as September 18, 1922, though she has given different outlets different birth years; we confirmed several months ago that she was born in 1920 and turned 100 this September.