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Cecilia Chiang, an S.F. legend and the matriarch of Chinese food in America, dies at 100

Cecilia Chiang, the mother of Chinese food in America and one of the most influential figures in Bay Area culinary history, died early Wednesday. She was 100 years old.

Her death was confirmed by her granddaughter, Siena Chiang, as well as by multiple friends who did not wish to give their names. Chiang died at home in San Francisco of natural causes, her granddaughter said.

Chiang made her name as the pioneering owner of the Mandarin, a bygone San Francisco restaurant that broke the mold in 1959 by bringing new levels of sophistication to Chinese cuisine in America. Though she didn’t cook herself, she was responsible for introducing Americans to now-ubiquitous Chinese dishes like potstickers, hot-and-sour soup and tea-smoked duck. She rubbed elbows with rock stars and royalty, while embracing not only the role of grande dame of San Francisco Chinese food, but of gracious mentor of the restaurant industry, even well into her 90s.

Her incredible life, from accidental restaurateur to culinary pioneer, goes beyond food, encapsulating 20th century Chinese-American diaspora, and the subsequent history of Chinese culture in San Francisco.

CHIANG31_059_cl.JPG Photo Cecilia Chiang, former owner of the groundbreaking Mandarin restaurant in Ghirardelli Square in the late 1960's. Photo of Cecilia at home during an interview. on 10/9/07 in Belvedere. photo by Craig Lee / The Chronicle
CHIANG31_059_cl.JPG
Photo Cecilia Chiang, former owner of the groundbreaking Mandarin restaurant in Ghirardelli Square in the late 1960’s. Photo of Cecilia at home during an interview.
on 10/9/07 in Belvedere.

photo by Craig Lee / The ChronicleCraig Lee / San Francisco Chronicle 2007

Cecilia Chiang was born on Sept. 18, 1920. She grew up in Beijing, where she and her 12 siblings were raised in a 52-room palace.

Her Chinese name was Sun Yun; Sun was her family name, and Yun was her given name, meaning “flower of the rue.” She also was known as the seventh daughter, a moniker that would later become the title of one of her memoirs.

Chiang was raised in a household with servants, most notably two cooks — one from northern China and one from southern China. The children were never allowed in the kitchen, but for the rest of her life, Chiang would remember the food that she ate over her first 20 years.

Family meals typically included a whole fish and a meat dish of some sort. In her first memoir, “The Mandarin Way,” Chiang fondly remembered red-cooked pork — fresh pork slowly simmered for hours in soy sauce — as her favorite meat dish in wintertime. She recalled banquets full of smoked ducks carved by cooks in front of guests and served with hoisin sauce, “laboriously trimmed” scallions and a plate of pancake wrappers. Leftover dumplings were transformed into kuo-t’ieh — crescent-shaped dumplings cooked in a pan and now commonly dubbed potstickers.

Vera Chan-Waller, right, owner of Yank Sing, pours tea while having lunch with restaurateur Cecilia Chiang in San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, March 24, 2017.
Vera Chan-Waller, right, owner of Yank Sing, pours tea while having lunch with restaurateur Cecilia Chiang in San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, March 24, 2017.Stephen Lam / Special to The Chronicle 2017

“I never cooked, but I knew exactly what the food should taste like and look like. I have a very good palate and good memory,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2013.