January 27, 2015 -- This film celebrates the life of Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang, who is credited with bringing authentic Mandarin Chinese cuisine to America. The film, by director Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”) includes an elaborate banquet at Chiang's home. The film also includes extensive interviews with chef and author Ruth Reichl, and with Chiang's longtime friend and restaurateur, Alice Waters.
Chiang was born in 1920 to a wealthy, upper class family who lived near Shanghai, and was raised in a 52 room mansion in Beijing, with chefs on staff. Chiang's father let her and his other children sample the fine cuisine. She always remembered the taste of that classic Chinese cuisine.
War and revolution soon cast China into turmoil, however. Chiang and her sister walked for months to escape the Japanese occupation. Chiang and her husband barely escaped the revolution with most of their children after the war. Chiang came to San Francisco in 1960 to visit a sister whose husband had died. There she met friends from Tokyo who were opening a restaurant. She wrote a check for $10,000 to help her friends get started in business, but ended up stuck with the lease when they backed out the deal. Thus began her accidental career running a restaurant.
At that time, most Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, and elsewhere in America, served Americanized Cantonese food. Chiang had trouble working with the Chinatown suppliers who all spoke Cantonese. She spoke Mandarin, and was considered and outsider. Chiang was determined to open a fine restaurant that served the classic Mandarin cuisine she remembered from her youth. It didn't catch on right away, but her Mandarin Restaurant eventually attracted a dedicated and influential following.
The most moving part of the film, along with the banquet, has Chiang talking about her visit to China to see her father, who had been brought low by the revolution. She was shocked to see him, sick and emaciated, laying on a bamboo mat on a dirt floor in a shack. He was eager to tell her what had happened in the 30 plus years she had been gone from China. Her mother was dead. One of her sisters had committed suicide after being harassed by the government for the crime of singing opera. One of her brothers had died in a labor camp for the crime of being an intellectual.
In subsequent visits she found out that Chairman Mao's “cultural revolution” had effectively changed the cultural landscape of China, including the food. The classically-trained chefs all lost their jobs. The few that remained fled to Taiwan. The food she remembered from her childhood no longer existed in mainland China. Chiang is a refugee from China's forgotten past. Fortunately for America, she opened the Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco.
Chiang's story is more amazing than what is shown in the movie, or what I have written here (the movie doesn't mention that Chiang spied for the Americans during World War II). For more, read Chiang's autobiography, “The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco.” The movie has a great banquet, and it does give you a sense of Chiang's personality and history, but it falls far short in the telling of Chiang's amazing story. This film rates a C.
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