The Matriarch of Chinese Cuisine Cecilia Chiang | The Mandarin Restaurant San Francisco

The Matriarch of Chinese Cuisine Cecilia Chiang | The Mandarin Restaurant San Francisco

Over the weekend I watched a PBS show with the elegant and revered James Beard award winning chef Cecilia Chiang of the most famous Chinese food restaurant in San Francisco history, The Mandarin. Oh and did I mention she was 97? There are so many things that drew me in about her story. Her background, her journey to the United States, and her sheer tenacity and bravery. Ms. Chiang was born near Shanghai to an aristocratic family and lived in a 52 room mansion. During the Japanese occupation she was forced out and escaped with her sister. Eventually settling in Tokyo she made a trip to San Francisco to visit a relative and never left.

Cecilia wanted to introduce non-Chinese Americans to her cuisine as well as improve upon the lackluster decor and ambiance seen in most Chinese food restaurants. She wanted to create a space that was opulent and luxurious with great lighting like the temples in China and palaces she grew up in. 

Menus via Ruth Reichl

Here is her first location. The restaurant was at first unsuccessful and had few patrons. Slowly the restaurant became more popular and began to attract loyal customers. Herb Caen began writing about the restaurant in his column. 

In 1968 Ms. Chiang opened her famed 300 seat Mandarin Restaurant in Ghirardelli Square which required a multimillion dollar investment. She said in the interview on PBS that she designed much of the restaurant and loved McGuire furniture. She would entertain VIP's from Presidents to Rock Stars wearing her fancy gowns. Not only was the place stunning she wanted people to really taste true Chinese food. Later a Beverly Hills location was opened. She sold her restaurant in 1991 and it closed in 2006. I would have loved to visit her restaurant. I bet it was full of beautiful Chinese screens and Chinese art. Such a strong, intelligent, and elegant woman making her mark in this world. Being a chef and female business owner at that time was no easy feat. 

I can't wait to watch her documentary "Soul of a Banquet" by filmmaker Wayne Wang.

XO, Erin 

October 24, 2017 by Erin Bichara