Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang, The

The Kitchen Wisdom of Cecilia Chiang documents the amazing life story of "the Julia Child of Chinese food in America."

Cecilia Chiang launched San Francisco's legendary Mandarin Restaurant in 1961 and, in the process, revolutionized Chinese cooking in America. She took the country beyond chop suey and chow mein and introduced Americans to authentic Szechuan, Hunan and Beijing dishes.

She influenced a new generation of chefs and food enthusiasts, including Julia Child, James Beard and a young Alice Waters (before her Chez Panisse fame).

In this six-part cooking mini-series, some of Bay Area's top chefs — including Corey Lee of Benu, Laurence Jossel of Nopa and Nancy Oakes of Boulevard — invite Cecilia into their kitchens to recreate some of the Mandarin's classic dishes (beggar's chicken, squab in lettuce cups, the original potsticker and and crispy Szechuan duck).

It's a cooking series with an incredible story to tell, and a grande dame to tell it.

Distributed by: American Public Television (APT)
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A Legend Is Born

Episode #101H · Cecilia Chiang was born almost 100 years ago in a China that no longer exists. In this episode, viewers get an overview of her amazing story from Beijing to San Francisco. In 1960, she opened the acclaimed Mandarin restaurant, which revolutionized Chinese food in America. She mentored the likes of Julia Child, James Beard and Alice Waters (Alice calls Cecilia "the Julia Child of Chinese food in America") Now in her mid-90's, Cecilia is mentoring a new generation of Bay area chefs. Corey Lee, the Korean American chef and owner of Benu, a three-star Michelin restaurant, invites Cecilia into his kitchen where she gives him a lesson in making "jowza," or what we in America call "pot stickers."

The Long Walk

Episode #102H · In 1937, the Japanese invaded China and by 1939 they arrived in Beijing, seizing most of the large family compound and with it, Cecilia's idyllic and privileged youth. By 1941 there wasn't enough food for the family so Cecilia and her number five sister (she had nine in total), fled on foot through Japanese occupied territory. They walked more than 1,000 miles and it took almost six months to reach the safety of "Free China." In this episode, Cecilia joins Laurence Jossel, chef and owner of Nopa. Like Cecilia, South African-born Jossel came a long way to open a restaurant in San Francisco. Cecilia shows Laurence how to make "beggar's chicken," a whole, stuffed chicken wrapped in lotus leaves and then clay, and baked for at least two hours. It comes out of the oven with a hard shell that must be smashed with a mallet to open.

The Best Chinese Restaurant In America

Episode #103H · When Cecilia first opened the Mandarin in 1960, business was slow-a bit like the scene from the movie "Big Night" where nobody shows up. But then Herb Caen, front page gossip columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about the Mandarin and from that moment on, there were lines out the door. In 1967, Cecilia moved to the recently renovated Ghirardelli Square, where she opened an elegant, temple-like restaurant with 300 seats and white tablecloths. It was called the "best Chinese restaurant in America." The Mandarin attracted the icons of the food world and later, at the urging of actor and comedian Danny Kaye, Cecilia opened another Mandarin in Beverly Hills where she became star to the stars. In this episode, Cecilia teams up with Nancy Oakes, chef/owner of Boulevard, a belle epoque eatery that for the past 20 years has been voted San Francisco's favorite restaurant. Cecilia teaches Nancy and her chef Dana Youkins how to make "minced squab in lettuce cups," a dish Cecilia created that became one of the signature dishes at the Mandarin.

Mother Knows Best

Episode #104H · "In most families in China, father was the boss" Cecilia tells viewers, "but in our family my mother was the boss." Cecilia's mother was very short and plump, loved to eat and was a very good cook. But with 12 children and a husband to feed, she left the cooking to her two chefs who turned out different elaborate lunches and dinners each day-food that can no longer be found, even in China. At the table the mother would go into detail about each dish. Cecilia called upon this knowledge when she opened the first Mandarin restaurant. In this episode, Cecilia cooks with Gary Danko who also learned about food from his mom. In the kitchens of Restaurant Gary Danko, where reservations are coveted like winning lottery tickets, Cecilia and Gary recreate the Mandarin's crispy Szechuan duck and then Gary shows Cecilia his lemon pepper duck breast with confit duck hash.

Last Flight Out of Shanghai

Episode #105H · Less than a decade after fleeing the Japanese, Cecilia now married and with a young family, caught the last flight out of Shanghai as the communist revolution swept over China. The family relocated to Tokyo where, at a dinner for an ambassador, Cecilia got her first taste of raw fish. Cecilia didn't love it and didn't love living as an ex-pat in the land of her former occupiers, so she sailed on the SS Woodrow Wilson into San Francisco to visit her number seven sister. Though she never learned how to cook, she ended up opening the Mandarin restaurant and never left. In this episode, Cecilia joins Chef Keiko Takahashi, the first Japanese woman in the world to win a Michelin star. She and her husband run Keiko on Nob Hill, a place that feels like a private club, and where the luxurious cooking has a distinct feminine style to it. Cecilia shows Keiko the simplicity of the Mandarin's whole steamed bass with ginger and scallions. Keiko reciprocates with an amazing 12 pound slab of Bluefin "Toro" tuna flown in from Japan. Keiko artfully butchers the Toro by fat content and turns it into a delicate and drop-dead tuna sashimi that Cecilia has no trouble devouring.

Passing on the Wisdom

Episode #106H · This episode is all about Cecilia as a mentor and passing on her kitchen wisdom. "Cecilia is a perfect mentor because she gives perfect advice," says legendary chef Jeremiah Tower. She gave Julia Child cooking lessons and was Alice Water's mentor in the years leading up to Chez Panisse. Well into her 90's, Cecilia is still mentoring a new generation of San Francisco's chefs. Corey Lee, a Korean American comes to her for professional advice and for personal as well. Tyler Florence asks Cecilia how to manage fame. And Belinda Leong, chef/co-owner and creator of b.patisserie is like a daughter to Cecilia and seeks out her counsel daily. In this episode, first they recreate a Mandarin classic dessert, glaceed bananas. Then Belinda does a b.patisserie signature favorite, her now famous chocolate banana almond croissant.