Recognizing her enormous contribution to American cuisine, the James Beard Foundation recently awarded its Lifetime Achivement Award to Cecilia Chiang, the first to introduce authentic Chinese food to the American restaurant scene. Eater reports that Chiang will be honored at the 2013 James Beard Awards in May, and given her incredible accomplishments — elevating Chinese food beyond takeout and pu-pu platters, in short — she’s more than deserving of the award.
During a 1960s visit to the US that eventually turned into a move, Chiang found herself in possession of a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. After multiple setbacks, The Mandarin eventually built a huge following, particularly among industry giants like Julia Child, Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and James Beard himself (who would eventually become Chiang’s close friend). As a JBF press release noted, Chiang was the first to serve, without hesitation, a “full-flavored Northern Chinese menu that initially included more than 200 dishes, then-novelties such as hot-and-sour soup, pot stickers, Peking duck, sizzling rice soup, and delicate shredded abalone with bean sprouts.”
Apart from overcoming racism and sexism in an industry rife with both (especially in the 1960’s), Chiang’s other career accomplishments include running a highly influential Mandarin cooking school, writing two memoirs, and consulting for her son’s restaurant chain, a tiny little business known as P.F. Chang’s. (You may have heard of it.) But on a wider scale, she paved a road to success for every Asian and Asian-inspired chef that came after her, and opened up American palates to an entirely new world of cuisine.
“I’m so excited to accept this award because it gives me the opportunity to celebrate my experiences,” Chiang said upon learning she’d won. “I’m proud of my accomplishments, but also of the struggles I’ve overcome. I want people to learn from my story.”
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