There are few chefs or cooks that just make us squeal with delight. Cecilia Chiang is one of them. After watching the documentary, Soul of a Banquet, about her and hearing Alice Waters sing her praises, I just had to find a way to hear her answers for The Tig’s Chefs Talks. As luck would have it, The Tig Team reached out to Cecilia’s granddaughter, Siena, who not only connected us to the incredible Mrs. Chiang, but did the interview herself. When asked what she wanted her legacy to be, she said she’d like to be thought of as “a hardworking woman who brought real Chinese food to America,” and if she could do anything differently, she’d have wanted to cook in the restaurant herself. Sage advice from an innovator at her finest. This fall, look out for a new PBS series, The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang, in which she teaches her recipes to some of San Francisco’s most renowned chefs. We will leave the rest to Siena to introduce her legendary grandmother. Thanks Siena!
Whenever a journalist researches a new piece about my grandmother, Cecilia Chiang, I imagine s/he struggles to find superlatives that haven’t yet been used to describe her. Even though she retired from The Mandarin, her San Francisco-based restaurant, almost 25 years ago, she is more active than ever and is still celebrated for introducing Americans to authentic, high quality Chinese banquet cuisine. So I couldn’t be faulted for familial bias, I scanned recent press on CC (as we lovingly refer to her) to find some of the most often used descriptors. Among them were “legendary,” “incomparable,” “food royalty,” and the “[queen, matriarch and Julia Child] of Chinese cooking.”
At 95, my grandmother is as much a tour de force as ever, keeping up with the local restaurant scene, fashion and current affairs, and dining out multiple nights a week – more often than not with a bottle of champagne to accompany her meal. On the night of the 2013 James Beard Awards, where she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, I had to drag her away from the after after party at Del Posto at 1:30 in the morning (I readily accept party pooper status for that one).
I recently got the chance to grill her (oof, bad pun) for Chef Talks. I interviewed her over a home cooked meal of red cooked pork belly (her mother’s specialty and my absolute favorite). The questions made us both laugh and revealed things I had never heard before. Enjoy.
- What’s the staff meal your kitchen gets most excited about?
At the Mandarin, the chef would cook three big family style dishes to share as the staff meal. We provided two meals a day – late morning before lunch and another meal around 4pm before we got busy. The staff got to pick what the dishes were – whatever they felt like eating: tofu, meat, vegetables, noodles. The only things they couldn’t eat were the expensive items like abalone and crab.
- What is the one knife you can’t live without?
My Chinese cleaver. I use it for chopping, slicing, pounding, smashing, everything. I even use it to open boxes!
- What’s your naughty food indulgence?
If I can find a really nice piece of steak, that’s the best.
- What’s your mini bar go to?
Sometimes when I’m really hungry I’ll get a granola bar.
- If you could stage at any restaurant in your city, where would it be and why?
Benu. You can learn so much there, from the way they chop their ingredients to their use of the most unusual Asian ingredients. Corey Lee is such a talented chef and his restaurant features such a variety of food. He recently received three Michelin stars. I’d really like to learn to cook some of his food.
- After a long day at work you go home and…?
Usually I read my mail or a book to relax and unwind. I used to like to turn on the radio and listen to music.
- If you weren’t working in a kitchen, what would you be doing?
I didn’t plan to be in the restaurant business; it just happened. I probably would’ve gone back to Japan and been a housewife and mother. But I do like to design clothes – I designed a lot of my own clothes over the years and had them made. Maybe I’d be a designer.
- Drink of choice?
I’m a champagne girl. I love champagne. It goes well with Chinese food, seafood, anything.
- One cookbook you can’t live without/most referenced?
There is a female cook from Taiwan named Pei Mei who wrote a series of three cookbooks. She was like the Julia Child in Taiwan. I still reference her books.
- What’s the most overrated ingredient?
Truffles. I have no idea why they charge that much. I know how hard it is to find them but still. Overpriced, overrated.
- Describe your cooking in one word:
Images via: Siena Chiang, T Magazine, New York Social Diary, Saveur