San Francisco (CNN) — “You know what goes well with Chinese food?” Cecilia Chiang asked as the small group gathered around to marvel at the sweet-smelling red pork simmering in a pot on her stove. The meat had begun to caramelize, its lovely aroma acting like a gentle (and silent) dinner bell.
“What’s that?” we asked.
As we stood in the beloved culinary figure’s San Francisco kitchen, Chiang swiftly produced bottles of ice-cold Sapporo. As if watching the legend herself cook and listening to her share decades worth of rich stories weren’t enough, now there was cold beer.
So many firsts
Chiang is famous, a celebrity chef before celebrity chefs were a thing. And her kitchen skills — thanks to being invited to her table to enjoy red-cooked pork — remain intact; Chiang’s definitely still got it.
The owner, chef and mastermind behind the game-changing San Francisco institution, the Mandarin, Chiang is widely credited with bringing real Chinese food to America.
The 50-seat restaurant, opened in 1961 on Polk Street and later occupying a much larger space in Ghirardelli Square, wasn’t like other Chinese restaurants.
Its dissonance was purposeful.
“Is this a Chinese restaurant?” Chiang says people asked her all the time. The Mandarin did not serve chop suey or chow mien, two standard dishes on every Chinese restaurant in the USA at the time.
But this is exactly what Chiang wanted to avoid. In fact, her early brushes with Chinese food in America had left her unimpressed and determined to show San Francisco what Chinese food was really like.
Not only was Chiang a woman trying to run a restaurant in a male-dominated industry, but she was also attempting to educate diners. Changing people’s minds was complicated. And, Chiang, who has been retired some 20 years, says there is still not a single restaurant comparable to the Mandarin.
Chiang, who was born near Shanghai, was from an upper-class Chinese family. Cecilia married well — her husband was a diplomat in Japan. She acknowledges money wasn’t a concern, but she faced other, perhaps more hard-won obstacles.
Convincing the dining public that Chinese food didn’t have to be Thursday’s cheap take-out option, Chiang had her work cut out for her.
“Most ABC, American-born Chinese, even they didn’t know [about Chinese food],” Chiang explained. Never having been to China, this group also needed to be educated on the difference.
It wasn’t enough to present unfamiliar dishes to customers of the Mandarin. Chiang also insisted on showing them just how Chinese food could be elevated.
The restaurant’s wine list was part of her strategy. Chiang says she wanted to upgrade the Chinese dining experience. To do this, she also needed to be hyperaware of aesthetics.
A common misconception about Chinese restaurants at that time (and perhaps even one that persists today to a lesser extent) is that it ought to look a certain way. Chiang remembers people telling her her restaurant didn’t look “like a Chinese restaurant.”
“Why?” she always asked.
“Too clean,” was the typical response.
Chiang’s wearing of a traditional Chinese dress day in and day out was one way she rejected this notion.
A life worth living
Chiang’s ownership of her success is refreshing. She shares a story about food writer Ruth Reichl telling her she wished the Mandarin was still open so she could eat there. And she reminisces about famous regulars who used to fly down via private jet every weekend just to dine at her restaurant.
At 99, Chiang proudly shares these memories, but there’s little sense that she’s living in the past.
“I just enjoy my life. I have a good time. I don’t want to waste my time, especially right now,“ Chiang says.
Food continues to be a recipe for enjoyment. Whether that’s flying to Tulum to eat at Rene Redzepi’s Noma Mexico, a short-lived pop-up Chiang had the privilege of trying, or getting together in the Bay area with industry pal Alice Waters and talking about food endlessly, Chiang hasn’t slowed down much.
And she has some advice for the rest of us: “Have fun … you don’t know [about tomorrow].”