Baffled and dissatisfied by Chinese American food? Yeah? Well, so was Cecilia Chiang (江孫芸) when she arrived in San Francisco in 1958 and decided that she was going introduce real Chinese food to the United States. And so she did, opening and running San Francisco restaurant Mandarin, which cherished for its food and ambience for 30 years, and along the way introducing and teaching Beijing cuisine to countless people including Williams-Sonoma’s Chuck Williams, James Beard, Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, and Julia Child. In 2013, she received the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award for “[i]ntroducing San Francisco—and America as a whole—to authentic Mandarin cuisine [and] elevat[ing] Chinese cuisine far beyond the takeout box.” Read more about Cecilia Chiang in this interview with The Wall Street Journal and profile in San Francisco Chronicle.
Centering around a banquet for 12 prepared by then 92-year old Chiang at her home, Director Wayne Wang (Joy Luck Club, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) presents in his food porn-filled first documentary, Soul of the Banquet, Chiang’s story from her unlikely beginnings as someone who had never cooked to her recognition as the “matriarch of Chinese cooking in the United States”. Ruth Reichl, one of the guests at the banquet, talked to Wang about the film, Chiang, and Chinese cuisine. The Hollywood Reporter has a review.
The film will open Sunday, October 19 with a 7 PM screening and a Q&A with Wayne Wang, Cecilia Chiang, and food writer Ruth Reichl at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elin Bunin Munroe Film Center.
On Monday, October 20, following a screening (free, but RSVP is required) at the Bruce Cost Ginger Ale Factory in Bushwick, Francis Lam, Clarkson Potter editor and Top Chef Masters judge, will moderate a discussion about Chiang and Chinese cuisine with a culinary all-star panel that includes chefs Anito Lo (Annisa), Danny Bowien (Mission Chinese Food), Jonathan Wu (Fung Tu), and ginger ale wizard Bruce Cost. Chiang and Wang will be in attendance.
The film will also be available for digital download on October 21.
James Beard Foundation Tribute video:
Image: Cecilia Chiang and Alice Waters in a still from Soul of a Banquet. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.