Cecilia Chang is known as one of the most inspirational culinary voices of our time, introducing America to authentic Chinese food with the opening of her San Francisco restaurant, The Mandarin. Now, her life story will hit the big screen.
Renowned filmmaker Wayne Wang, whose films include The Joy Luck Club, provides a glimpse into the life of Chiang with the film, Soul of a Banquet. We got a chance to talk to Wang recently, before the film is shown for the first time on Wednesday, April 10 at the Rincon Center in San Francisco.
How did you get involved with this project?
It was the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse. I was talking with Alice (Waters) and she was saying, you have to document some of these events because there were so many of them going on, all of them interesting. So I asked her what I should do. And she said I have to do Cecilia Chiang’s banquet that she’s cooking. So that’s how it all started. So I documented the preparation, the cutting, all the stuff that’s related to the banquet and during the few days before it. I documented the day she cooked it and how she cooked it, how she served it and the people at the banquet and how she introduced everything. From there, I started learning more about Cecilia’s life, started talking to her. I also included Alice, who has had a long relationship with Cecilia. And then Ruth Reichl came in at the end and talked a lot about the context of Chinese cooking in America and what roles Cecilia played in all of that.
Heading into the project, did you know about the scope of Cecilia’s place in the culinary history of San Francisco?
I didn’t know Cecilia well but I’ve been to The Mandarin and I know all about the history of The Mandarin. So I did know about it, but not in terms of the detail, probably more the details of her own life I didn’t really know. But I do know of the influence of Cecilia and influence of The Mandarin. Actually back in the 80’s, Ruth Reichl and myself did an article for a magazine that was a survey of Chinese food in California at that time. So I was quite aware of all the different restaurants and what the Chinese food was like.
During the filming process, what are some of the more interesting tidbits about Cecilia’s life that you took out of the process?
There were so many things. She came from a very big family and in her days, she was not allowed to even be close to the kitchen. Her mother was the one that could deal with the servants in the kitchen and the cooks. But she learned all about food through listening to her mother and father talk about it at the dinner table. Her father was very liberal for someone in her days and gave her a college education, which is quite rare. She was lucky enough to escape the wars in China and actually ended up in Japan and Taiwan, before eventually ending up here. One of the things that’s most fascinating was that she never thought about opening a restaurant until two of her friends put some money down on a lease for a restaurant, but couldn’t follow through with it and she ended up taking over that lease and that’s how she accidentally became a restaurateur. I think the thing that affected me the most is when she went back in the 70’s and found out about what happened to her family, especially her mother and brother because of the cultural revolution. The fates her family suffered were amazing. That’s all documented pretty straightforward in the film.
How long was the filmmaking process?
The anniversary was in August of 2011. So on-and-off, it took at least two years. We completed filming at the end of last year and we were editing through that process. And we just finished everything recently; a few weeks ago, I was still making little fixes to it.
The screening on April 10 is being put on by the San Francisco Film Society and will benefit the SFFS and Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard Project as well. The event starts with a reception at 6:00pm followed by a screening of Soul of a Banquet, then a special banquet dinner prepared by chef Andy Tsai and Yank Sing Restaurant. Wang said the dinner will feature all organic food and items from the menu of The Mandarin. Along with Chiang and Wang, Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl will also be in attendance. Wang said as of right now, there are no subsequent screenings scheduled as he is still looking for a distributor for the project. Click here for ticket information.
Photo Credit: San Francisco Film Society