water break: out on the town almost every night, cecilia chiang spends a quiet moment on the deck of her belvedere home.
Keeping Up with Madame Chiang
why the ambassador of chinese cuisine rarely stands still. By Sara Deseran photography by robyn twomey
7x7MAG.COM FEB 2006
his is what 86-year-old Cecilia Chiang can do to a person: She can make you want to own your own business, travel the world, speak four languages fluently, stay out dancing till all hours, hold your liquor and maintain an appreciation for both the finest restaurants and the diviest noodle shacks. Wear high heels—recent foot surgery be damned—and a rock of a ring. Drive fast and throw together a last-minute, 12-course dinner for 15 (proudly informing the guests that the steamed fish with scallions and ginger that they’re raving about was done in the microwave). Connect with people and remember their names. And, perhaps more than anything, have an opinion. “I’m happy, I’m happy. I’m not happy, I’m not happy,” she says, adding with a smile: “But usually, I’m happy.” Chiang, who is most famously known as the founder of San Francisco’s renowned restaurant The Mandarin—and who’s often credited as one of the first to educate Americans about regional Chinese cuisine— will tell you more than once that life is too short to play games. “For being Chinese, I’m very open,” she says. On a rainy winter’s evening at Scott Howard in Jackson Square (for which she consults), she raves about an unctuous starter of avocado and uni, and then in comparison tells me about an extravagant dinner she had in Spain last year. “The chef tells me, ‘Use the straw and take it in one sip,’” she says of one of the 36 courses that she and her younger jet-setting companions consumed at a dinner that lasted from 8 p.m. until 2:30 in the morning. Pursing her lips, she holds an imaginary straw between her fingers and sucks in quickly, breaking out in a fit of laughter at the absurdity. “I told him, ‘This is ridiculous! You can’t taste anything like that.’” The chef that Chiang is speaking of is Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, only one of the most famous chefs in the world. “A lot of purée, a lot of jelly” is how she describes Adrià’s cuisine, which she likens to baby food. “I think it’s really overrated.” As in every photo I’ve ever seen of her, Chiang has her black hair pulled back into a bun and eyeliner neatly applied. Her Chanel bag is hung over the chair, she’s wearing a turtleneck and diamond studs glitter in the lobes of her ears. She takes a sip of the Chiang-Chiang cocktail, a mix of pomegranate syrup, pineapple juice, vodka and Champagne that the restaurant has named after her. Just behind us, glass doors open into what’s been christened the Cecilia Chiang Room. As if on cue, one of the waiters interrupts our conversation to bend down and pay homage: “Ms. Cecilia Chiang, you don’t remember me,” he says humbly of his time working at Shanghai 1930, one of the many restaurants in San Francisco that Chiang has consulted for. “But you are my inspiration! I remember you were wearing a fitted Chinese silk dress for the restaurant opening 10 years ago, and you looked so beautiful….” While he expounds reverentially, she holds his hand warmly. Being the center of attention comes naturally to her.
Victor Geraci, a food-and-wine historian at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, has interviewed Chiang five times over the past few months in order to add an oral history of her life to a collection that already includes recordings from the likes of Chuck Williams, the 90-year-old founder of Williams-Sonoma. “Cecilia is a Mandarin woman who has broken all cultural and glass-ceiling barriers as far as gender and being an entrepreneur are concerned,” he says. “And she’s probably one of the most gracious human beings…. There is not an interview [during which] we’ve not tried a kind of tea that she’s brought back from China. Food is the way she expresses herself.” But Chiang did not grow up cooking. Brought up near present-day Beijing into a wealthy family in which meals were prepared by cooks, she ate well and took notes. The 10th of 12 children (nine of them girls), she was closer to her nursemaid than to her mother. She spent most of her childhood in a Ming-era former palace that spanned a city block and was full of beautiful gardens and ornate furniture. But in January 1943, when she was 20 years old, the Japanese occupied China. Chiang and one of her sisters, Teresa, were forced to set out disguised in peasant clothes (worn over their furs) to make their way to free China, a harrowing 907-mile journey that took five months and ended in Chong Qing, the capital of the Sichuan province. This was not her only narrow escape. In 1949, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Chiang and her husband, Liang Chiang, fled Shanghai for Tokyo on the last plane to leave China. In Tokyo, Liang worked at the Chinese Mission, and Cecilia, along with some relatives, started a 250-seat Chinese restaurant called Forbidden City—her first foray into the restaurant world. If you believe, as the author Gabriel García Márquez has said, that life obliges us to give birth to ourselves over and over again, Chiang’s most enduring incarnation happened when she flew from Tokyo to San Francisco in 1957 to support her widowed sister. While visiting, she invested nearly $10,000 in a little restaurant that her friends were opening on Polk Street near Chinatown. When her friends backed out, she was left with the lease. Despite the fact that her husband stayed behind in Tokyo (he visited only a few times a year until he passed away 17 years ago), Chiang decided to make the restaurant work. At a time when most Chinatown establishments were serving up greasy plates of Chinese-American food such as chop suey and egg foo yong, Chiang was determined to introduce Americans to truly regional Chinese food— Peking duck, Shanghai-style braised shark fin, spicy Sichuan prawns, Hunan beef, sizzling rice soup and pot stickers. She named the restaurant The Mandarin, and with the help of some kind words printed in Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle, it became such a success that Chiang moved it to Ghiradelli Square in 1967. The restaurant—which Chiang presided over almost every day until she sold it in 1991—drew luminaries including the Kennedy family, Princess Grace, Elton John, John Lennon (“and his group,” as she says), Woody Allen, Julia Child and James Beard. Chiang still sees R.W. (aka Johnny ) Apple Jr., the prolific food writer and reporter for The New York Times: “Johnny was at last year’s [Culinary Institute of America] conference,” she recalls. “When he saw me he said, ‘When our plane landed, I thought about how we used to go to The Mandarin and have the minced squab in lettuce cups and the tea duck. We just miss it so much!’” Chiang has a daughter, May, 58, and a son, Phillip, 56, who helped found P.F. Chang’s, the successful US Chinese-restaurant chain. Phillip worked as a waiter at The Mandarin for years, and he remembers the
she’s one of the most gracious human beings. There’s not an interview we’ve done that we’ve not had tea she’s brought from China. Food is the way she expresses herself.
lthough she’s not someone who lives in the past, Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang has a life story worthy of a Hollywood epic starring Gong Li. It’s one she’s retold tirelessly to enraptured audiences—most recently to writer Lisa Weiss, who collaborated with Nancy Oakes on Boulevard: The Cookbook, and who is working with Chiang on a memoir with recipes. (Her first memoir, The Mandarin Way, was published in 1974 and currently is out of print.) “She’s really amazing because she’s got a great palate,” says Weiss. “She can make a very simple dish delicious with very few ingredients. I’ll go over to her house, and she’ll have this huge spread prepared.” FEB 2006 7x7MAG.COM
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restaurant as an extension of his mother’s dining room. “She entertained constantly,” he says. “She was in Beverly Hills once [where Chiang opened another location of The Mandarin], and she invited Marion Cunningham and Wolfgang Puck. Alice [Waters] was there. She didn’t think a thing of it.” Phillip attributes his passion for food to his mother, but—like everyone—he also respects her savvy business sense. In the ’60s, “hippie types were often shunned at high-end places. But my mother was different—she saw that this one group had rolls of cash,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “It turned out to be Jefferson Airplane, and she became good friends with [Grace Slick]. We used to be invited to their studio and to the concerts. She would say, ‘Gosh, they work really hard!’” Chiang’s career did not end with The Mandarin. Ten years ago, she was asked by Real Restaurants to help open Betelnut in Cow Hollow— which was ahead of its time with its open kitchen and pan-Asian small plates—and she spent a couple of years with Shanghai 1930, which was launched by George Chen, another former waiter from The Mandarin. But her latest project has nothing to do with Chinese cuisine: It’s based on her faith in a young chef who’s less than half her age, 39-year-
kinds of sashimi, red-cooked spareribs, shiitake and porcini mushrooms with oyster sauce, spinach with garlic, asparagus with sesame seeds, steamed fish—yes, in the microwave—and a pot of chicken stock made with abalone). Every story of any restaurant she’s dined at includes a blow-by-blow account of what she ate as well as an astute appraisal of it. As she says, “A lot of people love to cook, they love to eat. But they don’t understand food, they don’t know food.” A few days after she’s returned from a three-week trip to China and Japan—during which she made stops in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo—Chiang and I have lunch at Shanghai 1930. Owner George Chen brings out each dish with fanfare, and Chiang analyzes all of them, from the cold mock goose made from wheat gluten served with tree-ear mushrooms (deemed good, and just like that which she grew up eating) to the Peking duck (she prefers the accompaniment of thin pancakes, which “taste much better” than the thicker buns Chen serves us). As he delivers course after course, Chen—who still refers to his former boss as Madame Chiang—chats with her in both English and Mandarin. They discuss SF Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, who
old Scott Howard. The two met about three years ago when Howard was cooking at Fork in San Anselmo, a restaurant that Chiang visited a few times a month. Howard asked Chiang what she thought about him leaving Fork to open a restaurant in the city. Her initial response was doubting. “I said, ‘First thing: Overhead is high. There’s a lot of competition. You’ve got a backer?’ I said, ‘You really need to know who’s who in San Francisco— Who’s Gordon Getty? Wilkes Bashford?” Howard realized that Chiang was a person with the experience and connections that he needed, so he asked her to help. She invested money, and also got other investors on board. “A lot of people said, ‘Cecilia, how can you do this?’ I said, ‘I think he’s talented and has a great future.’” In August, the unlikely duo took off for New York to research restaurant trends—it was Chiang’s first trip on JetBlue (“cheap and comfortable,” she says approvingly). Over the course of three days, they ate at Alta, Cru, BLT Fish and Mario Batali’s Esca and Lupa, leaving their hotel at 9:30 in the morning and returning after midnight. “After we’d eaten at Esca, I said [to Cecilia], ‘I didn’t tell you because I don’t want you to feel obligated to come, but I also have a 10 o’clock reservation at BLT Fish,’” recalls Howard. “Her response was, ‘Well, what are we going to do in between?’ She was so much fun.” There’s not a night of the week that Chiang’s not at restaurant openings, dining out with friends or entertaining at her waterfront house in Belvedere. She’ll casually rattle off the details of a dinner that she recently prepared for just a few friends (chicken wings, three different 100 7x7sf
has just returned from a trip to Shanghai and called to report on the recommendations that he solicited from both of them. Chiang is particularly in love with a noodle place called Lan Qui Fong that her friend introduced her to on her recent trip there. “It was really a dump—they only serve noodles—but the variety was amazing.” Despite her passion, Chiang isn’t one to wax poetic with her descriptions: “One fresh clam, chopped finely with garlic and ginger—very unusual and very good.” But no matter whom you speak to, the words used to describe Chiang herself are anything but ordinary. She’s been called relentless, a force of nature, amazing, strong, resilient, a national treasure, an empress and a queen bee. Of course, it takes someone as close to her as her son to have the perspective to see that Chiang has slowed down with age. “She’s mellowed, you know?” he says. “She’s just really enjoying herself now. And it’s spread to the people around her.” Indeed, it’s impossible not to be infected with Chiang’s energy. The first time I met her, a couple of years ago, we got into her boat of a black Mercedes (she drives herself everywhere—including, to the dismay of some of her friends, home from late-night events in the city) to have lunch at a little Chinese restaurant. The evening before, she’d been out until two in the morning at the Fifth Floor, and seemed unfazed, even cheery— inspiring me to stay out that night until the wee hours myself. Inevitably, I went to work with a hangover, wondering what had gotten into me. And therein lies the danger of hanging out with a woman like Cecilia Chiang— she can make you feel very old in comparison. x 7x7MAG.COM FEB 2006
c o u rtes y o f ceci l i a c h i a n g
(left to right): chiang posing for a photo at the mandarin in 1981, the year of the rooster; james beard dining with chiang at her belvedere home in 1972 (for which jeremiah tower made appetizers and a power outage forced them to eat by candlelight); chiang (second from front) and five of eight sisters in 1942; phillip chiang on his mother’s 80th birthday; alice waters and chiang at chez panisse’s 13th anniversary; chiang and scott howard in 2005.
THE WORDS USED TO DESCRIBE CHIANG ARE ANYTHING BUT ORDINARY. She’s been called a force of nature, amazing, strong, resilient, a national treasure, an empress and a queen bee.
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CONSUMMATE HOST: Chiang has thrown many a dinner party at her home for everyone from James Beard to Jeremiah Tower, who brought like “a kilo” of caviar to serve with blinis once.
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Published on Feb 2, 2006