At 98, the iconic San Francisco restaurateur is as bold as ever. Now, she shares her life story with her friend, pastry chef Belinda Leong.
Editor’s note: Cecilia Chiang died on October 28, 2020, at the age of 100. This story, originally published in July 2018, sees Chiang discussing her life, career, and influence on Chinese food in America with close friend Belinda Leong, who notes “hers is a career any chef today would envy.” Looking back at her great successes at the time, Chiang said, “When I started, not that young. I was 30. In a foreign land. Didn’t know the background or the history of the USA. And that’s not very easy. This [is] something I’m very thankful for.”
It’s not an understatement to call Cecilia Chiang one of San Francisco’s most beloved culinary figures. Her first restaurant in town, the Mandarin, opened in 1961 — a time when the white Americans she needed to support her business were far more familiar with egg foo young and chop suey than they were with the traditional dishes she served, like beggar’s chicken and smoked tea duck. Like many restaurateurs, it took Cecilia some time to find her groove in San Francisco, but she did — and by 1968, she moved the Mandarin to a bigger space in Ghirardelli Square, where she presided for over 20 years. Then came the Mandarin Beverly Hills. And then came two more restaurants. Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower attended her cooking classes. Her cookbook is a must-have for anyone interested in Chinese cooking.
Hers is a career any chef today would envy.
I sat down with Cecilia earlier this year to talk, to hear her tell me her story (again), and to show the world the wonderful woman I’ve come to know as a close friend and mentor.
Cecilia and I officially met at a party at restaurant critic Michael Bauer’s house. I was working at Restaurant Gary Danko at the time, and Cecilia had been in, and said hi, but it was at the party that we really connected. We started to get to know each other, and would see each other around town at events. When I wanted to leave the restaurant to open my own bakery, I turned to her for advice. I was hearing mixed things about the location I was considering. When Cecilia opened her first restaurant in San Francisco, she heard mixed things about her location too.
Cecilia: My first restaurant was on Polk Street. At that time, 1960, Polk Street had no offices, no nothing. Everybody said, “This is a really bad [location] … This is a pensioner’s area.” I didn’t know at that time what “pensioner” meant.
Others said, “You don’t serve Cantonese food. You don’t serve chop suey; the only Chinese food people know is chop suey.” I said, “I just try to do my best.” I wanted to introduce the real Chinese food to America. That’s how I did it.
I explained that to you. I said, “Don’t listen to everybody, otherwise you’ll get very confused.” That’s how we got to know each other better. Sometimes you’d call me to ask a few questions, because after all, you weren’t experienced [running your own business]. Sometimes little things would happen, and it can hurt your feelings. I told you, “Really, not that important. You just do whatever you can.” I said, “You’ll be just fine.”
I see Cecilia a few times a week. Together we talk, cook, and go out to eat. I asked her to walk me through her typical day.
You probably know my age. I’m 98 now, but I’m still what you can call a self-disciplined person. Every morning I get up at about 9 o’clock, and I have my breakfast, and then make some important phone calls, and then I go to the park. I walk, and also I do my exercise. At my age, I cannot do a lot of very extreme things, like jogging. About three years ago, I fell. I had seven stitches on my head. I injured my shoulder and my leg. At home I use a walker. But I still manage to take myself out. I live alone, but every day I have my routine.
I don’t have a computer, so I read a newspaper, like the New York Times, every day. Not too much local news: the Chronicle, only the food section.
I go out a lot with friends. I love to eat out. When you cook Chinese, you cannot cook a little. Once you cook, you have to have somebody share with you. In Chinese food, the prep work is a lot: You have to cut it, wash it, and slice it, then you eat. That’s no fun at all, so I go out to eat. But once in a while, I get some friends, we just eat, cook together, and have a little fun, a little glass of wine or Champagne. We laugh a lot, talk silly things, have a good time.
I think it’s very important, especially when you’re getting older, to have really good friends, because your own kids marry, have children, they move to somewhere. You need good friends to keep you company.
My friends say, “Cecilia, you’re a really very disciplined person.” When I’m home alone, I don’t drink. I don’t touch any wine, anything. I just eat and get work done. If friends call me, I must return the call. If people ask me to do some work, I do it right away. I don’t drag on. I like to get things done. Every day I have a schedule I put on a piece of paper. I look at every day: “Oh, pretty good, I finished everything today,” then I can sleep better.
People ask me, “What’s the secret?” I have lived such a long life. The first thing I must say, I have to thank my ancestors. We have good genes. My father died at 98 during the Cultural Revolution. My mother died at 94. Those days in China, most people don’t know how poor they were. My father got a little bottle of this much cooking oil a week: Everything was on ration. They were so poor. My father wasn’t sick; they just starved to death, there was no food. Most people don’t know all these things. I think I’m very lucky I have good genes.
Another thing is I try to learn Chinese moderation. I really believe that: Never overeat, or never overdrink. Never overdo it.
Also, I work. I love to work. I take care of my flowers. I planted all these by myself. I fertilize them, I prune them back, I like to work with my hands. I think you do too, Belinda. Look at my hands. I like to use my hands and keep busy.
Cecilia Chiang was born in 1920 in Wuxi, a wealthy town near Shanghai, along the coast of the Chang Jiang River (also known as the Yangtze). When she was 4, her family — including her father’s extended family — moved to Beijing, at the time the capital of “old China.” As Chiang remembers it, her family moved to be a part of the new Republic of China. Even so, she still thinks of herself as a “southerner,” especially when it comes to food.
I’m from a family of 12 children by the same parents. I say that because those days, all the rich families had concubines. Legally you could have two, three wives, and they all lived under the same roof. On my husband’s side, his father had five concubines. Five. But we had no concubines, 12 kids, nine girls and three boys.
Fortunately, we all had good educations; we all went to college. But those days that was not very easy, because we didn’t have enough public schools, it was mostly all private school. Not too many families can afford to send all the kids: Usually people would say, “Oh, the girls … after they grow up, they just get married, raise kids.” But my father said, “No, I want all my girls to go to college, have a good education.”
Another thing that was very important: Those days, in the Qing Dynasty, they bound your feet, and my mother had bound feet. When my number one sister (we call the eldest sister “number one”) was 4 years old, my mother started to bind her feet, but my father said, “No. You cannot do that.”
My mother said, “Oh, if I don’t bind her feet, who’s going to marry her? Nobody will marry her.” Because that’s the status. Only farmers, the peasants, have big feet. If you’re from a high-class, wealthy family, you have to have your feet bound. My father said, “Don’t worry about it. If nobody marries them, I’ll keep them at home.” This is very unusual. So in our family, we all have natural feet.
In the old days, the girls were not supposed to work. Once you go out to work, the family loses faith: “Oh, you must be poor [to] send your girl off.” Most girls always stayed home. With my older sisters, my father hired this opera-singer tutor.
My parents were very artistic people. They loved music. They loved opera, the grand opera, and they loved all the old paintings. My father loved all these old porcelains, and he also made all these little bonsai with a little tweezer. Doing the bonsai was very unusual. Also, my father played violin, Chinese violin, and then my older sisters started to sing the opera. My older brother also played the violin. I must say since I can remember, we really had a happy childhood.
In summertime, we had a ranch, near Marco Polo Bridge, and you had to take [a] little train to go there. We had a little farm, so we grew all the vegetables, cabbage, carrots, squash, tomato, everything.
In China, we didn’t have ready-to-wear, ready-made things. Everything was custom made; you could not buy anything. We had a tailor and a shoemaker at home, because of all the kids: You had to make clothes and shoes for the 12 of us.
I think about that, about all these wonderful things we had when we were kids. It was very unusual. I mean, those days, everything you had, you just take for granted. But now, I think it’s very privileged: How many families could afford to do that?
After college, I think I probably thought I would maybe find somebody, get married. Like I told you, most of the girls, after their education, just get married, raise the kids, be a housewife. That’s the typical Chinese way: Even now, the wealthy families are still doing that. In our family, not one girl was working, only my two brothers were working.
Then there was the [Second Sino-Japanese] war. Just to make the story short, I walked during the Japanese invasion, I walked from Beijing to Chongqing. You know how many miles it was? Over 1,000 miles. I walked six months by foot. Six months.
I had just finished college, 20 years old. And I have no fear because I am young and honestly because I’m naive. I was more sheltered. The Japanese tried to capture, tried to kill all the students. So we walked at nighttime. We walked all night. In the daytime, we’d find a place to just doze off, because the Japanese airplanes used a machine gun that just killed all the students, all the innocent people. So my sister, number five, and I, we two walked from Beijing to Chongqing.
And one day, I’ve never forgotten. The Japanese airplane was flying so low, just using the machine gun. There was a leg over there, a hand… Another student said, “The enemy’s plane is here, run, run!” But then you’re so scared, you cannot run that fast.
Finally we found a little field. In northern China they grow sorghum everywhere. So we’re hiding in the sorghum field. And when the airplane left, I called for my sister. “Number five sister, where are you? Where are you?” Nothing happened. I was so scared. I thought something happened to her. Then my number five sister called me, and says, “number seven sister, are you okay? Are you okay? Where are you?” I could not talk, I was so scared.
We didn’t even get hurt, but some other students died. That’s an experience that you never forget.
In 1949, Cecilia, her husband, and her daughter took the last plane out of Shanghai before the Communists arrived (her son stayed with her sister in Taipei). They lived in Tokyo, where her husband worked at the Chinese embassy. They had a 350-seat restaurant in the heart of Tokyo called Forbidden City. Two years later, her son was able to join them, and her two children attended an American school in Japan. At that time, one of her sisters (number six, Sophie) was married to an “ABC,” an American-born Chinese person, who ran a newspaper in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He died of cancer a year after the two married, so Cecilia went to San Francisco to spend time with her sister, who found herself a young widow. She slept on the sofa in her sister’s apartment on the edge of Chinatown, near Powell and Clay streets.
My sister didn’t know how to cook, because we had two cooks at home; we never learned how to cook. Not only that, we were not allowed go to the kitchen, because the kitchen servants were all men. Every day we just walked down into Chinatown and ate. I still remember $3 for four dishes and one soup, including tea, rice, everything: Chop suey — mostly tofu and bean sprout — egg foo young, $3. One day we walked there to have lunch, then on the street, somebody called me, “Oh, Mrs. Chiang. We had a hard time finding you.” These were some friends I knew from Tokyo.
They said, “We came here, we want to open a Chinese restaurant. We saw the spot we like, but our English is so bad, we cannot negotiate with the landlord and we need your help.”
I thought my English was just as bad, but I said, “I will try my best and see what I can do for you.”
I set up a date and met the landlord. The landlord was an old Italian, with a very heavy accent. He said, “If you’re really interested this spot, you have to give me a deposit — somebody else now is interested.” I never worked. I didn’t know about business, how to negotiate.
The deposit was $10,000. Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money. My friend said, “We came here as visitor, we don’t have a bank account. We have only cash.”
The landlord said, “Can you give a check?” See how naive I was. I was also young. I send a check for $10,000. Later [those friends] backed out and went back to Japan, I got stuck. What am I supposed to do?
I was just so naive. Later, I just thought how stupid I was. I was totally ignorant. I didn’t know business, I didn’t know the value of the money. Then I thought, What am I going to say to my husband? How in the world am I going to tell him?
I tried to sell it, [but] nobody wanted it. I tried everything, and I felt ashamed. Finally, I said, “I better open the restaurant,” otherwise the $10,000 is just down the drain. I found a couple from Shandong, also from northern China, because I didn’t want anything Cantonese, anything chop suey. I really wanted to bring real Chinese cuisine to the USA. That’s how I opened.
Business at her restaurant, the Mandarin, was hard; the second year in particular was “really quite slow,” Cecilia says now. But she refused to ask her husband for money to fund the restaurant, instead going to the Small Business Bureau, where it was difficult to get a loan as a woman.
I invited them to the restaurant. They had to see it as [a viable] business. At that time I had a manager, who’d asked me a very silly question: “Why, every time I ask you another question, you say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll make it?’ Why do you have the confidence to think you can make it?”
I said, “You really want to know why? Because all those things on the menu, nobody, not even in New York, nobody serves it. I serve real Chinese food.”
My menu had about 300 items. I had sea urchin at Mandarin, I had shark fin. I told my manager, “You know what? I think my food is really good: Not only tasty, but good quality. Really good, all the best.” I went to Japan, Taiwan, brought back shark fin and sea urchin. I carried it back by the bag.
Also, not one Chinese restaurant had such service. All my waiters were from UC Berkeley, spoke good English, were from really nice families. Those days when you went to Chinatown: “Sweet and sour pork, No. 2.” They called numbers to serve. Those days, they just put the plate down, just threw it on the table. No tablecloths, no carpets in Chinatown. No seats, just a bench.
All my waiters tasted the food I served. They knew the ingredients, and could explain the dishes. So I said, “I have something totally different. I think I am going to make it.” But I still needed luck.
So one day, a man came in. He’s Caucasian but spoke fluent Mandarin to me. He said, “Do you remember me? I’m the owner of Maxim’s.” Maxim’s was a very famous restaurant in China. He’s a Russian. He opened a restaurant called Alexis. He had dinner and said, “After I left China, this [is] the first time I’ve had such real, good Chinese food.”
He said he didn’t think I’d make it, because people were not familiar with my menu. And my location on Polk Street was bad — no parking, no walking, nothing. He said, “I’ll see what I can do, I really want to help you.”
Two days later, he came back with Herb Caen [a prominent San Francisco columnist]. I don’t know who that was. They ordered a lot of different things. He said, “Herb, I’m telling you this is real Chinese food.”
Herb said, “What’s the difference?”
He said, “Eat it and you’ll know.”
Herb Caen came back again.
And all of a sudden, my phone just kept ringing and ringing. I said, “This is crazy.” I didn’t have anybody. I was the one at the front desk. I answered the phone. I didn’t even have a janitor. I was the janitor. I did everything.
Finally it’s full. People were lining up: Because of the Herb Caen article, they wanted to come. I said, “What is Herb Caen? Who is Herb Caen?” People told me he’s the one that can make you, can break you. So Herb Caen really helped me a lot. The dinners really turned around.
At her restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Cecilia introduced Americans to real Chinese food — and fed plenty of celebrities, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, friends of Herb Caen. Her son Philip also followed her into the restaurant industry, eventually founding the megahit P.F. Chang’s (he is no longer involved with the chain).
I wanted to know what Cecilia is most proud of. Her answers show just how impressive her career has been, but also the incredible life she has lived.
First thing, when I opened the restaurant, the hardest thing was everything was against me. First, because I’m a female … I opened before Chez Panisse — Alice was not even open. I’m not Cantonese. The Cantonese treated me so badly, like a foreigner.
And then another thing is, I didn’t speak much English, because when you’re in a college, you learn A, B, C, D, and just how to read. But conversation is not easy. In those days, when I first came, I remember [there was] no television, only radio. So whenever you learned a few words, you put it in a notebook. Put in Chinese and English, try to make a sentence. That’s how I learned English. I’m very proud of it.
I had a good reputation, supported my family. Also we had four restaurants one time. Two Mandarins, one here, one in Beverly Hills. And also we had two little Mandarette. Actually, Mandarette is kind of P.F. Chang’s. That’s how [my son] started that.
I was the only one in my family who did all this. To me it’s pretty amazing, because now it’s nothing, actually, but you just think about … I’m 98. When I started, not that young either. I was 30. In a foreign land. Didn’t know the background or the history of the USA. And that’s not very easy.
But also I’m very grateful to the United States, because it’s hard. This would never happen in China or Japan for a foreigner. This [is] something I’m very thankful for. But I didn’t plan anything like this.
I never planned anything. That’s why now when I meet young people from China or somewhere else who want to start a business, if they need my help, I always help. I’ve sponsored 26 people: my niece and nephew, an MIT professor, also bankers, architects, doctors, and they’re all doing really well.
I still help them. Because I know how hard it was when I started.
As she mentioned in her daily routine, she’s an avid restaurantgoer. She is plugged into the restaurant scene today — she says her favorite restaurants right now are Benu and Z & Y — and is still known for having a razor-sharp palate. (When I wanted to start my mochi business, I had Cecilia taste my early creations.)
Fortunately, I grew up with good food, because my parents both know food very well. There’s a lot of people that say, “Oh, we love to eat, we love this, we love that.” Doesn’t mean they know the food. Even restaurant owners, I know quite a few. I mean, they really don’t have the palate, a good palate to taste good food and know the difference. I love them, but I know quite a few.
First thing, I have a very good nose, and also I have a very good tongue, because I used to eat out. I lived most my life in Asia, right? So I know Chinese food, I know Korean food, I know Japanese food, but French, Italian: I’m really learning. I never had anything to do with this food. I don’t know it. The only time I learn is when I travel, so I travel a lot.
When I was a student, that time I walked from village to village to the city, I learned the ways are different, the soil’s different. The local people were totally different. And each province had its own dialect. So I learned a lot about the food. About the vegetables, the weather, about the people’s characters. I think that helped a lot for my future about the restaurant business.
And then later I traveled with Alice Waters, a very good friend. We’ve been together to Europe … maybe five times. We covered all these three-star Michelin restaurants. And one day we went to a restaurant in Europe that was hard to get into. But somehow James Beard said if we really wanted to go, he could call somebody and make a reservation for us.
So Alice, Marion Cunningham, and I went down there. They served a salad. And so Alice tastes it. And Alice said, “Marion, you try it. See what dressing is that.” Marion said something else. Later, Alice said, “Cecilia, have you tried this? Tell me what you think this dressing is.” I tasted it.
I said, “I’m not sure, but to me, it’s walnut oil.”
“Are you kidding, walnut oil? Who uses walnut oil for dressing?”
“Something like that. I’m not sure, but to me…” We called the waiter.
The waiter came. “Tell us, we cannot figure out this oil.” The waiter said it was walnut oil.
And Alice said to me, “You did it again.” Before that, we went to Taiwan. I took her to Taiwan and also Japan, field trips.
I’m just very lucky that I have a good nose, a good palate. This is something either you have or you don’t. Just like a lot of wealthy people are very wealthy, but they don’t have good taste. That’s something money cannot buy.