Sometimes we ask the question – what is America’s most popular food? If we’re to judge this by sheer numbers, it’s Chinese food. There are over 40,000 Chinese restaurants in America – that’s more than the three largest chains – McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King – combined. But when we say Chinese – what do we really mean? The food in China is as diverse as it is from North to South in America. And, what we eat as Chinese food is very different, even unknown, to most Chinese.
The two most recognizable Chinese chains across the country are P.F. Changs, with over 200 locations, and Panda Express, at over 1900 locations. I had the golden opportunity a year ago in Dallas, Texas, to hear Peggy Cherng, CEO of Panda Express (who’s actually Burmese) talk about what has made her chain so successful. One of those points is a commitment to quality, and a focus on education. That mission statement stems from the family connection to one dynamic woman.
Chinese, or should I say Americanized-Cantonese food, has been in America since the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Chop Suey houses were popular from the 1880s into the 1920s. Cincinnati had several as early as the 1910s, all considered seedy and inappropriate for higher class diners. Chow Mein, chop suey’s lagging cousin, has been popular almost as long. Items like General Tso’s chicken and Mongolian beef, which are as made up American dishes as the first two, are on almost every modern Chinese menu.
But the difference with the two largest chains are a break from the forumulaic Cantonese based menus, where owners can add and subtract from a list of several hundred standard Chinese-American dishes.
We have one very strong and entrepreneurial woman to thank for this. Her name is Sun Yun “Celia” Chiang. Celia was born in 1920 Shanghai to an aristocratic family, and raised in Beijing in a 52 room mansion with 11 siblings. She is often called the Julia Child of Chinese cooking and is famous for introducing the now ubiquitous potsticker, as well as hot and sour soup.
Celia Chiang, founder of the Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco.
Her early life was marred with tragedy. She escaped Japanese occupied Shanghai in 1942, with a sister, walking several weeks to Chongquing, where she married her husband. She and her husband escaped the Communist Revolution in 1949, landing in Tokyo, Japan. Her family that stayed behind were treated poorly – her parents died poor, one brother died in a labor camp, others were killed by Communist soldiers, and a sister committed suicide.
Facing the knowledge of her family’s dire situation back home, and living with the people who were responsible for her exile in early life, she tried to make a go at life in Japan. She opened a 250 seat restaurant there called the Forbidden City, with other relatives who had escaped Communist China. It offered banquet style Chinese cuisine, and was popular with Americans.
In 1960, she visited a sister Sun Sun (Sophia) in San Francisco, whose husband had recently died of cancer. In visiting Chinatown, Celia accidentally ran into two women she knew from Tokyo, trying to open a restaurant. They asked her to invest, which she did. But after they backed out, and she had already placed a non-refundable $10,000 deposit on a space, she decided to open a restaurant rather than go home and explain to her husband the failure. She called her restaurant, the Mandarin.
At the time, non-Chinese Americans in the San Fran had no exposure to authentic Northern Chinese cuisine, Peking-Shandong and Sichuan-Hunan, specialties favored by the Mandarin ruling class. Americans were familiar with only the Americanized Cantonese cuisine- like chop suey and chow mein – dishes bulked up with hunks of celery, bamboo shoots, and carrots – the cheapest ingredients that you could find.
Convinced that San Fran’ers would enjoy Northern Chinese dishes, but unsure what would appeal to them, she initially listed more than 200 dishes on the menu. She also shunned the common kitchy elements of American Chinese restaurant decor, filling her space with the opulence of the Ming dynasty palace where she grew up. A few years later, Celia upgraded her location to the newly renovated Ghiraradelli Square, where she shaped Chinese food in America.
After moving south to Beverly Hills to open another Mandarin location, Celia’s son, Phillip Chiang in 1993 teamed up with Paul Fleming, to open P.F. Chang’s. They were the first multi-unit concept in the U.S. to make wok cooking the center of the guest experience, with moderate prices, in the atmosphere of an upscale steakhouse. They now feature a Farm-to-Wok menu highlighting their scratch cooking methods and freshly chopped ingredients. The carb-conscious lettuce wraps are an offshoot of his mother’s minced squab in iceberg lettuce dish, an original menu item from the Mandarin.
Celia’s chef at Forbidden City, back in Tokyo, Ming Tsai Cherng started Panda Inn in Pasadena, California, in 1973, with his son Andrew, featuring the Mandarin and Szechuan cuisine of Forbidden City and Mandarin. Then, in 1983, they opened the Panda Express in Glendale, California, that is the model for its chains today.
Celia sold the Mandarin in 1991, and without her at the head, closed in 2006. But Celia Chiang, at 95 is still working as a restaurant consultant with the same passion and vigor she had when she first opened the Mandarin. Chiang was recognized for her influence in 2013 by receiving the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. And, backed by P.F. Chang’s, Celia is launching a 6 part PBS cooking show, called Kitchen Wisdom of Celia Chiang.