She may have just celebrated her 88th birthday, but don’t call Cecilia Chiang “old lady” (that is, unless you’re Chinese, where, after a woman turns 50, she is called this as a sign of respect). Considered the grand dame of Chinese cuisine here in SF, the spirited founder of the Mandarin restaurant has given no sign that she’s slowing down. She just published The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco (Ten Speed Press) with Lisa Weiss, which is both an excellent memoir (based on her made-for-the-big-screen life, full of inspiring moments that continue to leave me on the verge of weepy) and a great cookbook (full of easy, accessible recipes).
Ever since I wrote a feature on Cecilia for 7x7, she’s become a friend of mine (she even showed up at my 35th birthday party at Rye, which caused quite a stir). I, on the other hand, am just one of her many, many friends.
I caught her a few weeks back before she headed to China (Beijing and Shanghai) for a little R&R. Catch her now. She’s back for book signings and then off again to Japan.
Green onion noodles
You’ve thrown so many wonderful dinner parties in your time. What’s the secret?
I like to mix people up. Also, I have some really good friends, I’m very fortunate that way. Last night I went out with Gerald Asher [one of the country’s most famous wine writers] and Marimar Torres because one night we had dinner together and I said, ‘I remember I used to have beef stroganoff a lot—funny how certain dishes just disappear.’
People might be surprised to see the recipes in your book are so simple.
While Lisa and I were working on this book, a young woman named Allison Saunders was helping us. She taught pastry in Marie Risley’s school. She was so surprised about the way I cook. She said, ‘I’ve heard so much about you. Your recipes are so simple. And you work so fast. And it tastes so good.’ I said, ‘That’s me!’
Give me an example.
We didn’t use a lot of fancy ingredients. For instance—tea eggs. In China, they’re everywhere. They’re delicious. When you’re hungry, you can just get a tea egg. They’re very tasty and very simple to make and you can make ahead of time.
I know you’re not afraid to use the microwave at times too.
One day I had Chuck Williams and Marie Risley over. I was cooking for them and I got out a shower cap. They were watching me, and they were like, ‘What are you doing with the shower cap?!’ I put the shower cap on top of a plate with a whole sea bass on it with some wine and put it all in the microwave for 4 minutes. Then just put on some good soy. No secret. Everybody laughed. You know, the Chinese don’t throw anything away.
The secret to a good, long life?
Well, I’m a very happy person. Everything I think about is the bright side. But really, I have no secret. I just keep busy, always moving around.