In an age of assembly-line careers and endless credentialing, it's good to be reminded that life itself is a credential. Cecilia Chiang didn't go to cooking school or restaurateur school; she didn't even reach these shores until she was 40 years old and didn't open her famous restaurant, The Mandarin, until she was 44, in 1964. These facts do not mean she was a slacker or late bloomer. They do hint at drama, and that drama unfolds in the pages of Chiang's new book, The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco (Ten Speed, 256 pages, $35), a singular combination of personal and gastronomic history richly laced with recipes from a restaurant that forever changed the tenor of Chinese cooking in San Francisco.
Chiang was born in 1920, and the Japanese invaded China in 1931, which means that, from early girlhood well into adulthood, her life was lived in a world churning with conflict: soldiers of the occupying Japanese rifling roughly through the family house, long overland flights to tenuous safe havens, even a postwar sojourn in the enemy capital, Tokyo, where Chiang politely tried sushi for the first time and found she liked it.
Chiang's story is a gripping one. War is not, after all, a television show or a sequence of reports in the gray pages of newspapers; it's a reality quite beyond the imaginings of everyday folk living everyday lives, at least until it engulfs those lives, which never happens here, or at least it hasn't yet. But did Chiang's youthful experiences of fear, loss, flight, renewal make her a better restaurateur?
The book sheds only indirect light on this question, but we can make some guesses. Like many immigrants, she saw the possibilities this country offered, and she was old enough, and had access to enough resources, to seize her chance when she saw it. And she took little for granted; she worked such long hours, in fact, that for her 50th birthday, her children bought her a bicycle, a red Schwinn, because, as her daughter explained, "you've been working so hard lately and we thought you needed a little exercise, a little something fun to do outside the restaurant."
I wish Chiang had not given her recipe for shark fin soup, an unconscionable dish. In this land of plenty, the occasional sacrifice is in order.