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Cecilia Chiang (1920–2020), restaurateur who brought authentic Chinese cuisine to the U.S.

by Linnea Crowther

Cecilia Chiang was a restaurateur whose San Francisco restaurant, the Mandarin, introduced a more authentic style of Chinese food to U.S. diners.

A journey across the world

Chiang was born and raised in China, the daughter of a wealthy family. As the Japanese occupied Beijing, where she lived, in World War II, she traveled nearly 700 miles to Chongqing, mostly on foot. She later left China, first for Tokyo, where she ran a restaurant with friends, then for San Francisco. Though she was not a chef, Chiang financed the restaurant’s start-up and hired two talented chefs to begin her business venture at the Mandarin in 1962. The restaurant served dishes that most Americans were unfamiliar with — Chinese food in the mid-century U.S. was not particularly authentic, with offerings like chop suey and chow mein. Chiang brought the spice and sizzle of traditional Mandarin cooking to the restaurant, delighting visitors with dishes including Sichuan eggplant, moo shu pork, and kung pao chicken. A glowing review from the San Francisco Chronicle brought diners to the Mandarin in droves, and it became a staple of the city’s dining scene until its closure in 2006. It was named as one of “Ten Restaurants that Changed America” by food scholar Paul Freedman in 2016, and it was beloved by noted foodies including James Beard (1903–1985) and Alice Waters.

Notable quote

“I think I changed what average people know about Chinese food. They didn’t know China was such a big country.” —from a 2007 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle

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Tributes to Cecilia Chiang

Full obituary: San Francisco Chronicle

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