Legendary Chinese restaurateur and bon vivant Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang -- of the late great Mandarin Restaurant in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco -- came over for dinner last night with some other good friends.
Cecilia, as she's universally known, turned 90 last year. Her birthday party was held at Chez Panisse. Alice Waters closed the restaurant in order to host the party for her good friend. Which was attended by 100 of her closest friends. Which includes Eddie Fisher. And that's Cecilia's world. She knows everyone, and everyone who knows her pretty much loves her to pieces.
And yet, saying that Cecilia knows everyone doesn't give this experience the right perspective. She truly knows everyone. You've heard of the game "seven degrees of Kevin Bacon," right? Well, once you know Cecilia, you are pretty much two degrees from everybody else.
We started lobbing out names, and she'd not only say she knew them, but she'd start telling us stories about each person. Not willing to be bested, my husband ( J. H. Huang), noted that he had been friends with a great tai chi master, Zheng Manqing. "Ah, he was married to my cousin," said Cecilia, and then we went off on a delightful tai chi tangent.
I cooked a completely vegetarian banquet for her, including some Shanghainese specialties like Fried Scallion Noodles, Mustard Pickles, and A Too Soft Heart (recipes to follow). Other dishes included vegetarian versions I'd created that were spins on Fuzhou-style Red Wine Lees Chicken, Taiwanese Oyster Rolls, Braised Lamb with Chinese Radishes, and Sichuanese Spicy Steamed Bao. Dessert was also designed to intrigue this woman who's uniquely hard to surprise: Coconut Mochi Cake with Sweet Red Beans, as well as plates of fresh Grapefruit Jellies.
More about Cecilia can be found in her two fascinating books, Seventh Daughter and The Mandarin Way.