At a time when many Americans were receiving cooking tips from Betty Crocker, Joyce Chen helped establish the model for the modern celebrity chef. His culinary career was not limited to a club. After leaving China for the United States during the communist revolution, she opened a restaurant, wrote a cookbook and starred in her own cooking show. Although she did not achieve the same level of fame as her friend and colleague Julia Child, Chen is credited with bringing Chinese cuisine to thousands of American kitchens in the mid-20th century. Here are more facts to know about the influential Chinese-American leader.
The daughter of a wealthy railroad administrator and city ruler, Joyce Chen had a privileged upbringing in pre-Communist China. She learned to cook by watching her family in the kitchen as well as their private chef. By 18, she had acquired enough culinary expertise to host her first professional dinner party. When she was forced to flee Shanghai with her husband and two children during the communist revolution, she brought her knowledge of the country’s cuisine with her to the United States.
Joyce Chen was a multi-talented woman. Before leaving China, she sang the lead role in the opera white snake in his late teens. The show recounted the legend from the Tang Dynasty era of a serpent who transforms into a woman to find love. The role required some serious vocal chops, but Chen decided to pursue a career in the kitchen rather than on stage (although his experience in show business would later come in handy).
The Chens settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard and MIT. There, they met many Chinese students who were craving their home country’s cuisine. The demand for authentic Chinese cuisine, along with the positive reception of the cooking she had done for her children’s school events, encouraged Chen to open Joyce Chen Restaurant in 1958. Its numbered, bilingual menu of American and Chinese also attracted Asian expatriates. as Americans for life. His loyal guests included famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard President Nathan Pusey, and President Eisenhower’s cardiologist Paul Dudley White.
By the early 1960s, Joyce Chen had gained enough weight to write her first cookbook. Her publisher refused her requests to include color images of the recipes, prompting her to publish the book at her expense. The investment paid off; she sold over 6,000 copies of Joyce Chen cookbook to the customers of his restaurant before going to the printers. The book (accompanied by a foreword written by Dudley White) was written as an entry point into Chinese culinary culture for beginners. Along with traditional recipes from around the country, she included tutorials on the basics of eating with chopsticks, cooking rice, and making and serving tea. The publication will sell more than 70,000 copies.
Joyce Chen’s career soared to new heights when she landed her own cooking show in 1966. A few years prior, The French cook had debuted on PBS and created the plan for the modern cooking show. Julia Child introduced millions of American viewers to classic French cuisine, and PBS hoped Chen would do the same for Chinese cuisine. Joyce Chen cooking was clearly inspired by The French cook— the two programs even shared the same set — but the new show made its mark. Chen took the same approach to cooking on her show that she had with her cookbook. Chinese dishes, tools and ingredients were even less familiar to American cooks than French cuisine at the time, and she managed to present them in a fun and accessible package. She also made history as one of the first non-white television personalities to host a cooking show with national distribution in the United States.
After finding success as a restaurateur, cookbook author and cooking show host, Joyce Chen continued to add accomplishments to her resume. Launched in the early 1970s, Joyce Chen Products introduced Chinese cookware and utensils to the American market. In addition to selling traditional tools, she patented a new type of flat-bottomed wok with a handle, which she dubbed the “Peking Wok”. His entrepreneurial spirit eventually extended to prepared foods and condiments with the release of Joyce Chen Specialty Foods in 1982.
Joyce Chen died in 1994 after being diagnosed with dementia, but her legacy as a pioneering chef grew. In 2014, her portrait was featured in the USPS’ “Celebrity Chefs Forever” stamp series, which also spotlighted culinary legends such as James Beard and Edna Lewis. A picture book about his life titled Dumpling Dreams: How Joyce Chen brought the dumpling from Beijing to Cambridge was released in 2017, the year she would have turned 100.