At the age of 93, Cecilia Chiang has the energy of a 30-year-old. We dine together often, and on a recent night out, we finished our dinner and a bottle of wine, but it was still early for Cecilia. So we stopped by the Park Tavern in San Francisco, where we sat at the bar and downed champagne and Country Lawyers, bourbon cocktails. With her eyes twinkling more than the jeweled brooch on her blue Mandarin-style jacket, Cecilia surveyed the room and said, “I love crowded bars. They make me feel so alive.”
In San Francisco, Cecilia is food royalty. She has sprinted gracefully into old age after a legendary career that revolutionized the way Americans eat Chinese food. It started in 1959, when as a new immigrant from Shanghai by way of Beijing and Tokyo, she opened the restaurant Mandarin in the city’s Russian Hill neighborhood. There she introduced a full-flavored Northern Chinese menu, including then-novelties such as hot-and-sour soup and pot stickers, to a public who had known only a bland, Americanized version of Cantonese. Other dishes, such as Peking duck and delicate shredded abalone with bean sprouts, put forth the idea of Chinese food as an upscale cuisine, as did the restaurant’s opulent interior.
When Mandarin moved to Ghirardelli Square in 1968, it became a bona fide hot spot, its 300 seats packed nightly with luminaries such as Wolfgang Puck, Jackie Onassis, and James Beard. Along with her son, Philip Chiang, Cecilia conceived Mandarette, the forerunner of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, founded by Philip and restaurateur Paul Fleming, today a hugely successful international chain.
Cecilia’s story is so rich she’s written two memoirs: The Mandarin Way (Little Brown, 1974), detailing her culinary success, and The Seventh Daughter (Ten Speed Press, 2007), chronicling a privileged Beijing childhood and her 1,000-mile trek across China on foot to flee Japanese occupation. Many contend Cecilia Chiang did for Chinese food what Julia Child did for French. I suspect she’s not quite finished yet.