‘Soul of a Banquet’ tells story of Mandarin cooking icon Cecilia Chiang

The Mandarin, the legendary San Francisco restaurant that attracted food luminaries such as Julia Child, James Beard and Alice Waters, went dark more than a decade ago.

But former owner Cecilia Chiang, the chef and restaurateur who revolutionized Chinese cooking in America, still shines brightly at age 95 in the upcoming documentary “Soul of a Banquet.”

Director Wayne Wang, whose films include “The Joy Luck Club” and “Smoke,” got to know Chiang after filming a 2011 banquet she served to mark the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, the landmark Berkeley restaurant founded by her good friend Waters.

“She is so interesting,” Wang says about Chiang and her food philosophy, which is steeped in forgotten culinary traditions. “In the film, we try to say that … you have to know the traditions before you throw them away.”

The first half of the film, which screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival and will be available Tuesday both online and in a few select theaters outside California, traces Chiang's life.

Chiang, daughter of an aristocratic Shanghai family, ended up in San Francisco after fleeing the communist revolution with her family. The Mandarin, which she opened in 1961 and ran for 30 years, introduced dishes such as Peking duck and pot stickers to a country that considered chop suey authentic Chinese cuisine.

Its busy kitchen would eventually host students seeking the secrets of Mandarin cuisine, such as Child, Waters and food writer Beard. Her son Philip followed her into the restaurant industry, co-founding the successful P. F. Chang's China Bistro chain.

“Cecilia's life is a document of the history of China and Chinese-Americans,” Wang says, including the ways China's communist and cultural revolutions “made a detour in everything that's related to culture and related to food, and related to history itself.”

The second half of the film, which shows Chiang preparing the banquet for Waters and a dozen other guests at her San Francisco apartment, focuses on the refined food traditions lost during the cultural revolution.

“The tradition of a proper Chinese meal done as a banquet no longer exists,” Wang says, adding that younger generations of Chinese-American cooks are often baffled by traditional techniques.

“Younger people are always asking, 'Why does it have to be chopped so fine, the vegetables or meat?'” Wang says. “It's about marrying the taste and the balance between the ingredients. Those are the kind of things that are missing or gone in the new Chinese cooking.”

Although he managed a few tastes during preparations for the banquet, Wang was too busy to snag a seat at the table.

“It was like documenting a live sporting event,” he says. “You don't quite know when something is going to happen: you have to watch out for the next thing, capture the next moment.”

Wang, who moved to the Bay Area from Hong Kong in 1967, has been capturing San Francisco moments since 1982's “Chan is Missing.” That film followed two cabbies searching Chinatown for a man who owes them money, passing through restaurants, shops and even a Filipino senior center, many of which no longer exist.

“This is my home,” he says. “I like the Golden Gate Bridge and the landmarks, but I also like the more specific sorts of nooks and crannies.”



Soul of a Banquet

Starring Cecilia Chiang, Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl

Directed by Wayne Wang

Not rated

Running time 1 hour, 18 minutes

To screen online: Visit http://soulofabanquet.vhx.tv

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