Pot stickers. Tea-smoked duck. Minced squab in lettuce leaves. These familiar items listed on Chinese menus today were completely foreign concepts in 1968. When Cecilia Chiang opened The Mandarin Restaurant in Ghirardelli Squarenext to Fisherman’s Wharf, she had no idea that her northern China cuisine would transform the American palate that was accustomed to chop suey and chow mein. The day after San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen unmined the hidden jewel with a glowing review, calls for reservations were nonstop, and Cecilia was famous.
At the time of this writing, Ms. Chiang is 100 years old, and has been hailed as the queen of Chinese cuisine and the Julia Child of Chinese cooking for decades. She is the first Asian restauranteur to receive the James Beard FoundationLifetime Achievement award. The prestigious honor is given to those whose “body of work has had a positive, long lasting impact on the way we eat, cook and think of food in America.”
The Mandarin was a sophisticated dining establishment featuring stately rooms with commanding views of the bay. From 1968 to 1991, it won numerous interior design and restaurant awards. Her daughter May Chiang recalls the lavish ambiance of jade green tiles, Thai silk fabric slicked to the walls, and a white lotus flower statue made of wood perched on the fountain. “No other place can replace it,” she says. “It was so beautiful.” Guests ranged from businessmen to celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Clint Eastwood, and John Lennon. One of the most famous and labor-intensive dishes was beggar’s chicken, a whole chicken baked in a round clay shell. To serve, the waiter would have to crack open the ball with a small hammer.
Although she worked outside of Chinatown, Cecilia graciously promoted Chinese cuisine with Johnny Kan, the charismatic owner of the popular Kan’s Restaurant on Grant Avenue. Whereas her restaurant extolled northern Mandarin-style cooking, the elegant Kan’s was known for southern Cantonese fare, which also lured stars including Dean Martin and Marilyn Monroe.
Cecilia has earned the titles of mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. The family continues to be inspired by this grand dame who still consults and works tirelessly. Her daughter May worked in various roles at the restaurant until it sold in 1991. Son Philip cofounded the P.F. Chang Restaurant chain which has over 200 restaurants worldwide.
Today, Ms. Chiang’s influence as gastronomy game changer in the United States is spreading to new audiences. Friends with celebrity chefs Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters, she is the subject of the documentary, “Soul of a Banquet,” and has authored two autobiographical cookbooks, The Mandarin Way, and The Seventh Daughter. She has appeared numerous times on CNN and public television specials. Four generations gather at her home whenever they can, but granddaughter Marisa attests, “Grandma is so busy with interviews and parties, it’s hard to pin her down.”