The chef and restaurant owner who helped change the way Americans think about Chinese food has died. Cecilia Chiang was twice a refugee before she opened the influential San Francisco restaurant The Mandarin and taught Chinese cooking to Julia Child and James Beard. Chiang died Wednesday in San Francisco. She was 100 years old.
The documentary Soul of a Banquet explains that Chiang was born into a wealthy Shanghai family with two full-time chefs — one from the north and one from the south. (The film also features drool-inducing close ups of her specialties, like red cooked pork and fish stuffed with ginger and pepper. Don't watch it while you're hungry.) Speaking to the camera, former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl says food connected Chiang to a vanished era: "She has this taste memory that goes back to a time that — there aren't a lot of people alive who remember the food of that China, the great food of the great houses, when what you had were chefs who had been classically trained."
That China no longer exists. In 1937, when Japan bombed Shanghai, Chiang had just started college. She and an older sister fled, walking hundreds of miles to the city of Chengdu. Eighty years later, Chiang told NPR about getting robbed by soldiers and hiding from low-flying Japanese warplanes. "Now I think about it, I was very brave," she said.