Chinese Food Pioneer Cecilia Chiang Dies : The Salt In 1961, Chiang opened San Francisco's The Mandarin, a high-end Chinese restaurant that served authentic fare. Today, her DNA is all over American Chinese food, from P.F. Chang's to Panda Express.
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Cecilia Chiang, Who Revolutionized American Chinese Food, Dies At 100

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Cecilia Chiang, Who Revolutionized American Chinese Food, Dies At 100

Cecilia Chiang, Who Revolutionized American Chinese Food, Dies At 100

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/532900657/929022550" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A chef who changed the way Americans think about Chinese food has died. Cecilia Chiang live to be 100. She started the influential San Francisco restaurant The Mandarin and taught Chinese cooking to Julia Child and James Beard. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SOUL OF A BANQUET")

CECILIA CHIANG: (Non-English language spoken).

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Do not watch this documentary about Cecilia Chiang when you're hungry. Along with drool-inducing close-ups of Chiang's specialties, like red-cooked pork and fish stuffed with ginger and pepper, the movie, "Soul Of A Banquet," describes how Chiang was born into a wealthy Shanghai family with two full-time chefs - one from the north, one from the south. In the documentary, a former editor of Gourmet magazine, Ruth Reichl, says food connects Chiang to a vanished era.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SOUL OF A BANQUET")

RUTH REICHL: She has this taste memory that goes back to a time that - there aren't a lot of people alive who remember the food of that China, the great food of the great houses, when what you had were chefs who had been classically trained.

ULABY: That China no longer exists. In 1937, when Japan bombed Shanghai, Cecilia Chiang had just started college. She and an older sister fled. They walked hundreds of miles to the city of Chengdu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHIANG: Now, I think about it. I was very brave.

ULABY: Eighty years later, Chiang told NPR about getting robbed by soldiers and hiding from Japanese warplanes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHIANG: Really scary - they fly so low - U.S. machine guns.

ULABY: Chiang had to flee her home a second time when the communists took over. She wound up in the U.S., where she was both shocked and amused by the food most Americans considered to be Chinese, like chop suey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHIANG: (Laughter) And they think chop suey is the only thing we have in China. What a shame.

ULABY: So she resolved to open a high-end Chinese restaurant that served authentic fare.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHIANG: Everybody said, you cannot make it. You cannot speak English, you don't know anything.

ULABY: But starting in 1961, tourists, dignitaries and celebrities from Mae West to John Lennon flocked to her restaurant, The Mandarin, for then unfamiliar food - tea-smoked duck, twice-cooked pork. To this day, Cecilia Chiang's DNA can be found all over American Chinese cuisine. Her son founded the chain P.F. Chang's. The son of one of her chefs founded Panda Express. In early 2017, Chiang told NPR how she lived to be so old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHIANG: I always think about the better side, the good side of everything. I never think about, oh, I'm going to fail, oh, I cannot do this, oh, I feel sorry for myself.

ULABY: Instead, Cecilia Chiang wrote books, starred in a PBS documentary series and won the most prestigious award in American cooking from the James Beard Foundation when she was 93 years old. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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