If you don't already know the name, Cecilia Chiang
did for Chinese food what Julia Child did for French cooking: She made it accessible to a generation of Americans who, until she came along, had to deal with grotesque bastardizations prepared with substandard ingredients.
In 1961, Chiang founded The Mandarin, a Polk Street restaurant that everyone told her would fail because she wasn't catering to white middlebrow palates by serving chop suey. A few years later, it moved to Ghirardelli Square, where — along with another location in Beverly Hills — The Mandarin became a darling of the smart set and lasted until 2006. Chiang had long since bowed out of the kitchen by then, and her son Philip had gone on to co-found P.F. Chang's in 1993.
Chiang, at 96 years of age, remains active and heavily involved in the San Francisco dining scene, providing sage advice to people you might not think would need any, like Belinda Leong
of B. Patisserie. Last Thursday, at the P.F. Chang's
in Emeryville, more than 100 people — among them Leong, Gary Danko
, and Laurence Jossel
of Nopa — gathered to honor Chiang on the occasion of a six-part documentary series, The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang
, which premieres Monday, July 12 on KQED. Philip Chiang, for his part, recalled redeeming Coke bottles 55 years ago, admitting that the inspiration to open a restaurant came to him relatively late in life.