Six Lessons on Becoming a Cooking Legend from Cecilia Chiang
The 97-year-old woman who introduced Westerners to high-end Chinese cuisine still parties as hard as she works—which is to say, a lot.
by Siena Chiang
Jan 2 2018, 5:00pm
Words like "legend" and "icon" are thrown around a bit too casually today. My 97-year-old grandmother, however, deserves both titles. The story of Madame Cecilia Chiang, as she's been known for decades, is well-trod territory. You can see three recent examples of her impact here, here, and here, in addition to an awesome mini-series that came out last year. (Full disclosure: I narrated it.)
The TL;DR version of my grandmother's life is that in the 1950s, she (unintentionally) immigrated to San Francisco, and then (very unintentionally) opened a restaurant called The Mandarin, which would become iconic for introducing Westerners to high-end, "authentic" Chinese cuisine.
She earned her status as a badass much earlier, though. After growing up in an aristocratic family in Beijing, with 12 siblings and a matching number of servants, my grandmother's idyllic childhood ended abruptly. The Japanese occupation began when she was in her early twenties, and she and her sister escaped to "free China" by walking for six months across the country. A decade later, after resettling in Shanghai and starting a family, she was forced to flee her home again, this time from Mao and the Cultural Revolution. She resettled with my grandfather, my dad, and my aunt in Tokyo, before moving on her own to San Francisco.
Initially, The Mandarin was a hole in the wall ("in a very bad location," she always recalls). But by dint of my grandmother's grit, luck, and uncanny sense for good food, it would evolve into a glamorous 300-seat restaurant, where she fed everyone from Henry Kissinger to the King of Denmark, Pavarotti to the Beatles. She would then open another outpost of The Mandarin in Beverly Hills, which my father, Philip, would end up taking over. Phil would go on to found P. F. Chang's. Yes, we can directly thank my grandmother for the lettuce wraps we all love, and those addictive crispy banana spring rolls.
On top of all of this, as a side venture, my grandmother taught Alice Waters, James Beard, Chuck Williams, and even a young Julia Child how to cook her specialties. Today, she mentors many chefs and restaurateurs, like Corey Lee, who was nominated this year for James Beard awards in three categories, and baker Belinda Leong, who is up for best baker for the third year in a row.
My grandmother achieved all of this as an outsider: She was an immigrant and hardly spoke English when she first arrived. She had no support system—she spoke Mandarin, not Cantonese, which was the main dialect of the diasporic group of Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco at the time. In an industry that is, to this day, notoriously male-dominated, she succeeded without any business experience—in fact, without having ever worked a day in her life. She was not even a chef—she had literally never cooked before she decided to open a restaurant by herself.
Today, 25 years after retiring from running her restaurant empire, my grandmother continues to make her mark, and party like nobody else I know. At 97, she goes out for dinner nearly every night. She's been to the hottest new restaurant in the Bay Area three times before you've had a chance to look it up on Yelp. On my most recent visit, we checked out the incredible omakase at Kinjo (my grandmother's love of sushi is a holdover from her Tokyo years). The woman has an iPhone and orders her own Lyfts, for god's sake.
So what can we learn from my grandmother's near-century of bad-assery? There's no single path, but here are six simple lessons and a handful of anecdotes my grandmother has shared with me over the years, that highlight exactly how to live and love your life as a beloved icon.
Lesson 1: "If you can, you just do it."
Roughly translated, one of my grandma's favorite Chinese phrases means: "If you can do something, you do it." This "why not?" approach to life is how she wound up opening The Mandarin in the first place. While visiting her recently widowed sister in San Francisco in the mid-1950s, my grandmother ran into two friends from back home. They asked if she would help them negotiate the lease on a restaurant space they wanted to open. She agreed, despite knowing that her broken English was hardly better than theirs. While dealing with the landlord, she was asked to write check for $10,000 as a down payment. She did; immediately after, her two "friends" vanished. Saddled with a lease, my grandmother always recalls that there was no way she was going to walk away from the investment without giving it a shot. So she shrugged her shoulders and decided she would just figure it out. The rest is history.
Lesson 2: "Just treat people like people."
My grandmother has a near-flawless palate, but she is an even more incredible host. Every time I visit a restaurant with her, a staff member—more often than not a busboy or dishwasher—comes by our table to say hi and catch up. My grandmother always knows their name, and where they worked when she first met them. Everyone appreciates it: No matter who she talks to, you can see in their eyes just how special the moment is for them. My grandmother makes people feel seen and valued, just by paying attention to them.
One of my favorite stories involves my grandmother's very dear friends, the psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane. Over dim sum lunch recently, band members Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen told me the reason they started coming to The Mandarin in the first place was because my grandmother treated them "like human beings." Back in 1970s San Francisco, the band's garb of choice wasn't exactly welcome at most fine dining establishments. Jack recalled that during an early visit to The Mandarin, they ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon. The waiter—assuming there was no way such a motley crew could afford the high-end libation—called my grandmother over to the table. Without blinking, she brought them a cold bottle and opened it herself. "I always just tried to give people a chance, like people had given me," she recalls now. Jefferson Airplane remained loyal customers for decades (they always paid in cash and left generous tips). They always visit my grandmother when they're in town, and she still goes to their shows—when they don't conflict with her other social events, that is.
Lesson 3: "The boss should work harder than anyone else."
After 50 years in the male-dominated restaurant industry, my grandmother is an extremely tough fortune cookie—sorry, I had to—and she has impossibly high standards for everything. (When we cook together, I brace myself for the inevitable litany of corrections to my chopping technique.) But she also knew exactly how to earn respect as "the Boss Lady." Her former employees have shared that she never asked her staff to do something she wouldn't do herself. After dinner service, she would more often than not be found on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floors of the kitchen.
When Zsa Zsa Gabor dined at The Mandarin with her sisters, their notorious stage mother Jolie grabbed my grandmother's hands. She didn't comment upon my grandmother's incredible array of diamond rings. (Did I mention she has impeccable style?) Instead, mother Gabor noted how mangled my grandmother's hands were—from all those years of scrubbing. She remembers Jolie turning to her girls and saying: "See, girls, it's important to marry up, so you don't ever have to work and end up with hands like this."
My grandmother tells that story with pride. Hard work is the highest badge of honor in her world. And old habits really die hard: I still find her vacuuming, polishing her china, and scrubbing her range late into night, whenever I come to visit.
Lesson 4: "Stay informed."
My grandmother reads the paper every day. She always has the news on. She knows world events as well as anyone, and when she doesn't understand an issue, she asks people for context. (A recent example: "Can you explain what's going on with the bathrooms in the schools in North Carolina?") I am always floored by how she understands the nuances of every issue, and by her determination to stay informed.
And as you might imagine, dining with her is a crash course in Restaurant Operations 101. Constantly scanning the dining room, she oscillates between observing the staff ("Look at that—the GM is bussing that table himself!") and commenting on how the owner could increase margins ("Putting bottles of tap water on the table cuts out so much labor expense—even The French Laundry does it"). Obviously, her chief pastime is evaluating the food ("I can't believe they used American cucumbers for this dish; the skin is way too thick—inedible"). I am certain that she will leave this earth having tried the latest restaurant the night before, with more than a few ideas for how it could be better.
Lesson 5: "Don't ever stop moving."
My grandmother still uses a paper calendar. There is not a single square that doesn't have at least one event penciled in. When I call to check in on her, "I'm so busy" are the first three words out of her mouth. During a recent Saturday visit, I helped her shred 15-plus years of tax documents, organize an interview with a major national periodical, and sell her shares in a venture she wants to part ways with. After that, we exercised. Her daily routine involves three ten-rep sets of squats and high knees, followed by a brisk walk through the park outside her building. We then had lunch at China Live—started by her former employee George Chen—which some are calling the Eataly of Chinese food. When we got home from lunch, she immediately headed out again to Healdsburg, for dinner at SingleThread, one of the hottest-ticket haute cuisine dining experiences at the moment. (It was her second visit.) She got back from her dinner later than I did.
Lesson 6: "Always have fun."
These days, you might assume people invite my grandmother out in a ceremonial "kiss the ring" sort of way. In reality, it's because she's still the life of the party. "You've got to have fun if you're going to live this long," she insists. We never dine without Champagne (that includes both lunch and dinner). When she received the JBFA lifetime achievement award a few years ago, we party-hopped from the post-awards dinner at Lincoln Center to the afterparty across the street at Per Se, and then down to an after-after party at Del Posto in the Meatpacking District. At 1:30 AM, while people were literally dancing on the bar, I had to drag my grandmother back to the hotel, because I had to work the next day. I'll never forget the way she looked at me with barely hidden contempt as she said, "Fine. I guess we can go."
People will always characterize Cecilia Chiang's contribution to the food world as significant because of her incredible Chinese cooking. That is undeniably true. But in my mind, my grandmother's true legacy is her determination to live her best life. As in cooking, living your best life requires the right ingredients and some luck, but most importantly, being fearless, being gracious, and more than anything else, just doing the work.