San Francisco (CNN) – “Do you know what goes well with Chinese food?” Cecilia Chiang asked as the small group gathered to marvel at the sweet-smelling red pork simmering in a pot on her stove. The meat had started to caramelize, its pleasant aroma acting like a sweet (and silent) dinner bell.
“What is that?” we asked.
100-year-old Cecilia Chiang still has brag-worthy cooking skills – and a nose that tells her when a dish is ready.
Courtesy of Alice Yu
While we were in the San Francisco kitchen of the beloved culinary figure, Chiang quickly produced bottles of frozen Sapporo. As if watching the legend himself cook and listening to him share decades of rich history wasn’t enough, now there was cold beer.
So many firsts
Cecilia Chiang is widely recognized for bringing true Chinese cuisine to America.
Chiang is famous, a famous chef before famous chefs were a thing. And his cooking skills – thanks to his invitation to his table to taste cooked red pork – remain intact; Chiang certainly still has it.
The owner, leader and mastermind behind San Francisco’s revolutionary institution, the Mandarin, Chiang is widely credited with bringing real Chinese food in America.
The 50-seat restaurant, opened in 1961 on Polk Street and later occupying a much larger space in Ghirardelli Square, was unlike other Chinese restaurants.
His dissonance was intentional.
But that’s exactly what Chiang wanted to avoid. In fact, her first contact with Chinese food in America had left her unimpressed and determined to show San Francisco what Chinese food really looked like.
Chiang was not only a woman trying to run a restaurant in a male-dominated industry, but she was also trying to educate diners. Changing mentalities was complicated. And, Chiang, who has been retired for some 20 years, says there still isn’t a single restaurant that compares to the Mandarin.
Chiang still enjoys going out to eat and talk about food with other pioneers in the industry.
Chiang, who was born near Shanghai, came from an upper-class Chinese family. Cecilia got married well – her husband was a diplomat in Japan. She admits that money was not a concern, but she faced other, perhaps more hard-earned, obstacles.
Convincing audiences that Chinese food doesn’t have to be the cheap Thursday take-out option, Chiang had her work cut out for her.
“Most Chinese of American descent, ABC, even they did not know [about Chinese food]Chiang said. Having never been to China, this group also needed to be educated on the difference.
It was not enough to present unfamiliar dishes to the customers of the Mandarin. Chiang also insisted on showing them how high Chinese food can be.
The restaurant’s wine list was part of his strategy. Chiang says she wanted to improve the Chinese dining experience. To do this, she also had to be aesthetically hypersensitive.
Chiang has a stack of old restaurant memorabilia, including Mandarin-marked menus, in his San Francisco apartment.
Courtesy of Alice Yu
A common misconception about Chinese restaurants at this time (and perhaps even one that persists to a lesser extent today) is that they should look a certain way. Chiang remembers people telling him that his restaurant was not “like a Chinese restaurant”.
“Why?” she always asked.
“Too clean” was the typical response.
Chiang’s wearing of a traditional Chinese dress day in and day out was a way for her to reject this notion.
A life worth living
Chiang and Alice Waters have been friends for years, and Chiang was delighted to join a group of Bay Area chefs at Waters for a meal and conversation.
Chiang’s ownership of his success is refreshing. She tells the story of food writer Ruth Reichl who tells her that she wished the Mandarin was always open so she could eat there. And she remembers the famous regulars who flew in private jets every weekend just to dine at her restaurant.
At 100, Chiang proudly shares these memories, but there is little sense that she lives in the past.
“I’m just enjoying my life. I’m having a good time. I don’t want to waste my time, especially right now,“ Chiang said.
Food continues to be a recipe for fun. Whether it was flying to Tulum to eat at Rene Redzepi’s Noma Mexico, a short-lived Chiang pop-up had the privilege of trying, or reuniting in the Bay Area with his industry friend Alice Waters and endless food talk, Chiang hasn’t slowed down much.
And she has a piece of advice for us: “Have fun … you don’t know [about tomorrow]. “