The legacy of Cecilia Chiang, the 'Mother of Chinese food in America,' who died at 100

Scott Stump
·3 min read

Cecilia Chiang, the famed restaurateur who helped introduce authentic Chinese food to America in the 1960s, died at 100 on Wednesday.

She gained acclaim as the owner of the Mandarin, a pioneering San Francisco restaurant she opened in 1961 that served many dishes that are now staples at Chinese restaurants across the country, like pot stickers, moo shu pork and sizzling rice soup, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which first reported her death. Her granddaughter, Siena, confirmed her death to the Chronicle, which named Chiang the "mother of Chinese food in America."

Chiang, who ran the Mandarin from 1961 to 1991 before selling it, was credited by food magazine Saveur in 2000 with "nothing less than introducing regional Chinese cooking to America."

The restaurateur recounted her dramatic journey to culinary fame in her 2007 memoir, "The Seventh Daughter," with Lisa Weiss, which was the second of her two memoirs.

She was born in 1920 with the name Sun Yun as one of 12 children in Shanghai and grew up in opulence in a 52-room palace in Beijing.

However, the Japanese military occupation of the city that began in 1937 caused her to flee with one of her sisters in 1943 to live with relatives. The siblings made the nearly 1,000-mile journey to Chongqing mostly on foot, hiding from Japanese fighter planes during the day and walking at night to reach the city in free China, Chiang told Eater in 2018.

"We didn’t even get hurt, but some other students died," she said. "That’s an experience that you never forget."

Chiang met her husband Chiang Liang in Chongqing and moved with him to Shanghai and then Tokyo, where she opened a successful restaurant called the Forbidden City.

Around 1960, she became an accidental U.S. restaurant owner, as she put a $10,000 deposit on a store in San Francisco found by friends who backed out of the deal and left her on the hook for the non-refundable deposit.

Chiang decided to just start the restaurant herself by introducing Americans to the cooking of her youth.

KitchenAid(R) Culinary Demonstrations - Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Food Network SoBe Wine and Food Festival)
KitchenAid(R) Culinary Demonstrations - Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival (Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Food Network SoBe Wine and Food Festival)

"They think chop suey is the only thing we have in China," Chiang told NPR in 2017. "What a shame."

She also became the rare female owner in an area of restaurants owned by men.

"I told them: 'You guys just watch me,''' she told Saveur in 2000. "I'm going to do it. And I'm going to do it very well.'"

Business started slowly before critics, including late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, started singing the praises of the Northern Chinese cuisine, including kung pao chicken and twice cooked-pork, according to the Chronicle.

She moved the restaurant to a larger space on San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square in 1968 and later opened a second Mandarin in Beverly Hills, California in 1975. The original Mandarin closed in 2006.

Chiang's son, Philip, bought the Beverly Hills location in 1989 and co-founded the P.F. Chang's restaurant chain, carrying on his mother's impressive legacy.

"I think I changed what average people know about Chinese food," she told the Chronicle in 2007. "They didn't know China was such a big country."

A previous version of this story was first published on Today.com.

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