Forever Celebrity Chefs: Joyce Chen single
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- “Cooking is an art—an unselfish art which you will enjoy sharing with others,” wrote Joyce Chen (1917–1994), one of America’s greatest popularizers of Chinese food. From her landmark restaurants in the Boston area to her cookbooks and trailblazing PBS television show, Chen invited newcomers to sample unfamiliar dishes in ways that firmly established Chinese cuisine in the United States.
- Joyce Chen was born on September 14, 1917, in Beijing, China, where her father, a railroad administrator and city executive, employed an excellent family chef. “My father entertained friends more frequently at home than at restaurants, by their enthusiastic request,” Chen later wrote. “Of my childhood all I remember are parties, guests and food.” After overseeing a successful banquet when she was 18, Chen became eager to learn more about cooking and food. After the Chinese Revolution in 1949, Chen left China and found herself in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Chinese students from local universities would visit her family for meals—and to enjoy a rare taste of home.
- In 1958, Chen opened her first restaurant in Cambridge. At a time when even soy sauce was considered exotic in America, Chen introduced many Northeasterners to such dishes as Peking duck, moo shu pork, and hot-and-sour soup, often serving Chinese food buffet-style, at first alongside familiar Western dishes, so nervous patrons could comfortably sample new things.
- Perhaps most famously, Chen called her dumplings “Peking ravioli,” a vital part of her efforts to make Chinese food more inviting to hesitant American palates. “Chinese restaurants often had two menus, one in English and one only in Chinese. My mother believed that everyone should have equal access to all the menu items,” Chen’s daughter Helen later recalled. “So our restaurant only had one menu.”
- In 1962, two years after teaching Chinese cooking classes with long waiting lists, Chen compiled her recipes and kitchen tips into a popular cookbook she described as “written with blood, sweat and love.” Offering a clear introduction to Chinese ingredients, utensils, and cooking methods, Joyce Chen Cook Book also devoted chapters to proper chopstick usage, regional variations, the importance of tea, the difference between home and restaurant cooking, and methods of preparing perfect rice. “I worked my best to simplify the procedures for the busy American life,” Chen wrote in an afterword, “giving enough information to lead the beginner to the enjoyment of cooking, serving and eating those dishes from the other side of the world which they have never seen.” In the decade that followed, Chen’s cookbook sold more than 70,000 copies and was reprinted well into the 1980s.
- As locals increasingly looked to her as a cultural ambassador, Chen understood that her restaurant was as much about people as it was about food. “I hope our restaurant is not only a place to enjoy truly authentic Chinese food, but may also serve as a cultural exchange center,” Chen wrote in the preface to her cookbook. Dubbed “Boston’s first real celebrity restaurateur” by the Cambridge Historical Society, Chen attracted a parade of distinguished regulars, including such Harvard scholars as economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who praised Chen for combining “scholarship and political sense with damn good food.”
- Another prominent guest was Julia Child, whose success on television prompted Boston public television station WGBH to ask Chen to host her own show. Filmed in the late 1960s, Joyce Chen Cooks aired on public television stations across the country. The show is credited with expanding America’s interest in and knowledge of Chinese food and culture.
- Joyce Chen died in Lexington, Massachusetts, on August 23, 1994, at the age of 76.
- In 1998, Chen was posthumously included in the James Beard Foundation Hall of Fame. Chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Ming Tsai has called her “the Chinese Julia Child” and praised her for not changing Chinese food to meet American expectations. “She didn’t dumb it down,” he said. “She opened people’s eyes to what good Chinese [food] could taste like.”
- Today, Chen’s legacy thrives in kitchens where chefs and families alike use either the sauces, condiments, and frozen foods that bear her name or benefit from her innovations in Asian cookware, which included introducing the flat-bottom wok to American kitchens. She is particularly remembered as a key player in the Boston-area food scene: On September 15, 2012, seven restaurants in Cambridge, Massachusetts, held the first Festival of Dumplings to celebrate what would have been Chen’s 95th birthday. “It’s great to see people celebrating my mother’s legacy,” Chen’s son Stephen said, noting her lasting influence. “Dumplings have become an everyday food in America.”
- The five chefs honored on the celebrity chef series—James Beard, Julia Child, Joyce Chen, Edna Lewis, and Felipe Rojas-Lombardi—revolutionized our understanding of food. Seeing cooking as a source of delight, they invited us to feast on regional and international flavors and were early but ardent champions of trends that many foodies now take for granted. As they shared their know-how, they encouraged us to undertake our own culinary adventures.
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