It was so popular, she added it to the menu, published the recipe in local newspapers and included it in her first cookbook. Ms. Wu helped write the blueprint for American Chinese chicken salad as we know it, more than a decade before Wolfgang Puck put his own version on the menu at Chinois, his French-Chinese restaurant still open in Santa Monica.
When Madame Wu’s first opened, chop suey houses still ruled. Ms. Wu was a part of a wave of restaurateurs, including Joyce Chen, who opened Joyce Chen Restaurant in Boston in 1958, and Cecilia Chiang, who opened the Mandarin in San Francisco in 1962, who worked to expand ideas of their cuisine. And while it was powerful to shift the perception of Chinese food as strictly working-class fare, it could be frustrating.
“I am pleased that journalists from the Western world were impressed by the excellence of Chinese cuisine,” she wrote in her 1973 cookbook, just after President Nixon’s visit to China, and I hear the words between gritted teeth. “But at the same time I am confused and just a little indignant over the ‘discovery’ that the Chinese are excellent chefs.”
Fifty years later, and that feeling Ms. Wu identified is more prevalent than it should be, still driving conversations around food and media, where cuisines are easily flattened and misrepresented — even through praise.
Sylvia Wu was born in Jiujiang, China, and raised in a wealthy family. As a child, she wasn’t allowed into the kitchen, where a wood-burning stove spat flames and ash under a wok the size of a card table. The kitchen was run by the family’s two cooks, who were managed by her grandfather. Ms. Wu lit a stove for the first time as an adult in New York, where she attended Columbia University and met King Yan Wu, who she would go on to marry.
She learned to cook a deeper repertoire of Chinese dishes after her mother-in-law sent her back from a trip to Hong Kong with one of the family’s cooks, who taught her how to plan menus, shop and prep. Most of Ms. Wu’s wealthy Chinese friends in Southern California already employed Chinese cooks in their homes — they didn’t go out to restaurants for Chinese food.