Farewell Cecilia Chiang

Cecilia Chiang, who died Oct. 28 at age 100, was born in Beijing and grew up one of 13 children in a 52-room palace where the girls in the family were never allowed in the kitchen. Two cooks, one from southern China and one from northern China, reigned over that culinary domain.

But Cecilia Chiang never forgot the dishes and tastes of what she had eaten at home.

She escaped the 1943 Japanese occupation of Beijing by walking for 1,000 miles in six months with her sister, armed with gold pieces sewn into their underwear. Her family eventually escaped the communist revolution in China for Japan. Chiang and Julia Child both served, coincidentally, as spies for the United States Office of Strategic Services.

Eventually she left for San Francisco to join her sister, then a recent widow. Her husband, Chiang Liang, was a successful businessman with whom she had two children.

Neither sister knew how to cook since they were never allowed in the kitchen at home, so they went out a lot and were astonished at how unauthentic they found the Chinese food to be in California. Light bulb.

Coincidentally, she ran into a woman in Chinatown, whom she had known in Tokyo, who wanted to start a restaurant on Polk Street, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Chiang instantly wrote a check for $10,000 to help the woman start her restaurant, which led, eventually, to Chiang’s elegant Mandarin restaurant in Ghirardelli Square. Her explanation for instantly writing that check was “the Chinese way – if you can, you do.”

Trader Vic (Bergeron) became a sort of mentor to Cecilia Chiang, especially when she moved to Ghirardelli Square where he had Senor Pico, and she taught cooking to Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham. Trader Vic brought columnist Herb Caen to the Mandarin, Caen wrote about it, and off it went. (Note: This writer was handling public relations for Trader Vic’s at that time.)

Among the Chinese dishes Cecilia Chiang introduced and popularized in America were guo tie (potstickers), twice-cooked pork, Peking duck, hot and sour soup, sizzling rice soup, tea-smoked duck.

Her son, Philip, founded P.F. Chang’s with Paul Fleming in 1993.

Cecilia Chiang came to Sonoma in 2014 for Williams-Sonoma’s official opening of the store on Broadway. At 94, she was strikingly beautiful and as elegantly dressed as she always was in her restaurants and at cultural events everywhere, all of which made her the grande dame of Chinese food in America and of San Francisco.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette