SAN FRANCISCO — On her 99th birthday, Cecilia Chiang wore a leopard-print silk shirt and black trousers, slipped on two thick, glittering cocktail rings, and met her granddaughter for an early lunch at Yank Sing, in Rincon Center.
Before she could put in an order for her favorite — the juicy pea-shoot dumplings — a half-dozen servers in burgundy visors dropped by to say hello, and several diners crossed the room, crouching by her table, leaning in to be heard above the clatter of steam trolleys as they said, “Happy birthday!”
In 1961, Ms. Chiang opened the Mandarin, a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco that rejected the American clichés of thickly sauced stir-fries served in pseudo-exotic settings. She built her reputation exalting regional Chinese cuisine, often guiding diners toward the unfamiliar and the delicious.
Using a glamorous dining room as her platform, she worked to undo decades of anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States and broaden the understanding of Chinese culture. She made that work seem effortless. It wasn’t.
Racist landlords discouraged her as she worked to open a larger location. Diners used to inexpensive Chinese food complained about the prices. Ms. Chiang was a woman in her 40s, starting her own business in a new country, in an industry dominated by men. But under her command, the Mandarin thrived, becoming one of the nation’s most influential restaurants of its time.
“I didn’t know I had a talent, I didn’t know I had a palate,” Ms. Chiang said during her birthday lunch on Sept. 18, gripping a pair of disposable chopsticks. She finds them easier to handle with her arthritic hands than the fancy kind, which are too slippery. “If I hadn’t come here, to the United States, I’d probably be a housewife.”
Today, she lives alone in a roomy penthouse apartment, filled with Chinese art and photos of her family and friends alongside the chefs she has mentored, like Belinda Leong of B. Patisserie and Corey Lee of Benu.
“I love my life,” Ms. Chiang said, beaming. “You can probably tell that I’m a very happy person.”
Every day, Ms. Chiang checks email on her phone and reads a hard copy of the newspaper, then takes the elevator down to do her stretches in the park across the street. Though her favorite cleaver has become too heavy for her to maneuver, Ms. Chiang still cooks.
A regular dinner for one starts with a small, whole bass tucked under a disposable plastic shower cap — she has collected so many over the years while traveling, and doesn’t like to see them go to waste. For her shortcut to Hangzhou-style fish, she stuffs the belly with raw ginger and scallion whites, dribbles Chinese wine and soy sauce around the fish, then zaps it in the microwave until it’s cooked through. The shower cap comes off, and the fish is ready.
More often, though, she goes out for dinner with friends. And at new restaurants in the Bay Area, she recognizes diners who came to the Mandarin. Ms. Chiang remembers their faces, their names, their favorite tables, their drink orders, their allergies. She remembers everything.
“But I think something is going on with my short-term memory,” she confided to her granddaughter Siena Chiang. “The other day, for example, I went into a room in my apartment, but then I didn’t remember why.”
Her granddaughter reassured her, “That happens to me, that happens to everyone! That’s never happened to you before?”
Ms. Chiang shook her head, “Never.”
Her memory is a treasure, precise and expansive, reaching back to Beijing in the early 20th century, to places and flavors that no longer exist.
Ms. Chiang had never worked in a restaurant before she ran one herself. She wasn’t a home cook, either. Growing up one of 12 coddled children, in a stylish, opera-loving, upper-class home in Beijing where servants did all the work, she wasn’t even allowed into the kitchen.
But her memories from around the table are clear and vivid, both at dinner parties and festivals at home, where the family employed two full-time cooks, and out in the city’s grandest restaurants, which served specialties from every province.
Ms. Chiang remembers her mother’s version of raw freshwater shrimp dipped in peppery bean curd, and her siblings’ favorite snacks after school: dark, shiny buns filled with lamb, and fried bread dipped in hot goat’s milk. Without notes or photos, she can recall a number of complex 12-course banquets she ate as a child, from the first bite of fresh almonds and plum wine, to the last piece of cut fruit.
These memories guided Ms. Chiang in the kitchen. In writing her first menu at the Mandarin, she introduced San Francisco diners to Mongolian lamb, and to beggar’s chicken, a whole bird wrapped in lotus leaves and cooked in clay.
It wasn’t just the food itself that was unusual at the time. The menu opened with a short introduction that began, “Imagine that you are a Chinese family.” This was a gentle but revolutionary instruction: Ms. Chiang was encouraging American diners to learn and adapt to an immigrant cuisine and its traditions, rather than the other way around.
During the first week of service, she scribbled in blue ink all over that menu, taking notes, based on conversations with diners, on how to more clearly explain dishes. Dishes that weren’t popular enough, and didn’t really stand a chance (like a time-consuming three-bean dessert) were simply scratched out.
In the 1990s, Ms. Chiang sold the Mandarin, and the restaurant closed in 2006. By that time, many of the dishes she had helped to popularize had become standards at other Chinese restaurants. She did her best to take it as a compliment.
At lunch, Ms. Chiang slid a wobbly bowl of cool, fresh bean curd across the table to her granddaughter. “Try the tofu,” she urged. It was new on the menu at Yank Sing, and Ms. Chiang had played a hand in getting it there. “What do you think?”
“It’s like a Japanese dish,” her granddaughter said, approvingly.
“No, no,” Ms. Chiang said, “this is a Chinese dish. The Japanese got this from us!”
A week earlier, between big, Champagne-fueled birthday parties at Chez Panisse and Benu, and evenings filled with food celebrities who paid their respects, Ms. Chiang was at work in Yank Sing’s kitchen, informally consulting.
She walked through the technique for that tofu, tweaking the sauce with pickled mustard greens, noting how much the sesame oil should come through. This was her life’s work, and it didn’t end when she sold her restaurant, or when she stopped being able to prep ingredients with a cleaver, or when she turned 99.
Ms. Chiang could still teach dishes exactly as she remembered them. And if one more person could cook one more piece of this vast cuisine, then maybe the flavors of Ms. Chiang’s childhood could outlast her memory of them.