Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Justice


Airs Saturdays, July 16 - August 13 & September 10, 2016 at 3 p.m. on KPBS TV

THE KITCHEN WISDOM OF CECILIA CHIANG is a new six-part cooking mini-series do...

Credit: Courtesy of Charlie Pinsky

Above: THE KITCHEN WISDOM OF CECILIA CHIANG is a new six-part cooking mini-series documenting the amazing life story of chef and restauranteur Cecilia Chiang (pictured), known as "the Julia Child of Chinese food in America."

THE KITCHEN WISDOM OF CECILIA CHIANG is a new six-part cooking mini-series documenting the amazing life story of "the Julia Child of Chinese food in America." In the 1950s, Chinese food in the U.S. was mostly westernized Cantonese food such as chop suey and chow mein. Then, along came restaurateur Cecilia Chiang.

On Cecilia Chiang's 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award

“The Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes those who have truly revolutionized the way Americans think about food,” says James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro. "Cecilia elevated Chinese cuisine far beyond the takeout box. She completely embodies the spirit of this award.”

Never having cooked professionally, Cecilia launched the legendary Mandarin Restaurant in 1961 and 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 the process, she introduced Szechuan, Hunan and Beijing cuisine, and revolutionized Chinese cooking in America.

In this series, top chefs of the Bay Area—including Corey Lee of Benu, Laurence Jossel of Nopa and Nancy Oakes of Boulevard—invite Cecilia, who is still active and vibrant well into her 90s—into their kitchens to recreate some of the Mandarin's classic dishes (beggars chicken, squab in lettuce cups, the original potsticker, and crispy Szechuan duck). It's a cooking series with an incredible story to tell, and a grande dame to tell it.


Episode 1: “A Legend Is Born” airs Saturday, July 16 at 3 p.m. - 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-90s, 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."

Episode 2: “The Long Walk” airs Saturday, July 23 at 3 p.m. - 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.

Episode 3: “The Best Chinese Restaurant In America” airs Saturday, July 30 at 3 p.m. - 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.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Charlie Pinsky

Gary Danko of Restaurant Gary Danko and Cecilia Chiang.

Episode 4: “Mother Knows Best” airs Saturday, Aug. 6 at 3 p.m. - “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.

Episode 5: “Last Flight Out Of Shanghai” airs Saturday, Aug. 13 at 3 p.m. - 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.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Charlie Pinsky

One of Chiang's closest proteges, Belinda Leong, owner of b.patisserie, was nominated for best pastry chef for this year's James Beard Awards with Cecillia Chiang.

Episode 6: “Passing On The Wisdom” airs Saturday, Sept. 10 at 3 p.m. - 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 90s, 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 final episode, first they recreate a Mandarin classic dessert, glacéed bananas. Then Belinda does a b.patisserie signature favorite, her now famous chocolate banana almond croissant.

Watch clips from the series on Facebook.


Produced by Frappé Inc. Directed by Charles Pinsky. Written by Charles Pinsky and Siena Chiang. Distributed by American Public Television.


The James Beard Foundation's 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner: Cecilia Chiang

Produced for James Beard Foundation for the 2013 Gala Awards in collaboration with Bowen and Company.


San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Every weekday afternoon, we’ll send you our top TV picks so you can hear about upcoming programs and never miss your favorite shows.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.