How Joyce Chen changed American perceptions of Chinese food

(Jin Xia for The Washington Post)
(Jin Xia for The Washington Post)

In 1966, Boston’s public television station produced two groundbreaking TV shows in the same studio.

One was Julia Child’s “The French Chef.” The other was “Cooking with Joyce Chen.”

A half-century later, almost 20 years after her death, Child still looms larger than life in American culture — she’s even the subject of a new HBO series — while Chen, who died in 1994, has largely faded into the mist of Chinese American history.

In fact, many outside the Boston area — this writer included — had never even heard of the Chinese American cookbook author, restaurateur and entrepreneur until 2014, when she landed on a series of U.S. postage stamps celebrating American culinary figures that also included James Beard, Edna Lewis and Child.

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This month, GBH (formerly WGBH) is hoping to change that by highlighting its recent release of a little-known documentary Chen produced for the station chronicling her family’s trip back to China shortly after President Richard M. Nixon opened diplomatic relations with the communist nation in 1972. “Joyce Chen’s China” is streaming on the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, which also hosts 11 episodes of her black-and-white cooking show.

The fascinating documentary, largely shot by her teenage son, blends equal parts travel log, home movie, state propaganda, Sunday morning political talk show and cooking program. The fact that Chen was able to essentially smuggle a film crew into 1972 China is a testament to her chutzpah and pioneering foresight.

“My mother had this philosophy,” her son Stephen Chen recalled in a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts, “‘If you see a door, don’t ask if you can go through it. Just open the door.’”

That kind of initiative led the single mom to open multiple Boston-area restaurants, patent an Americanized wok, self-publish a popular cookbook and star in a nationally broadcast TV cooking show at a time when America was much less accepting of independent women, Chinese immigrants and international foods than it is today.

Even if Chen’s cooking show didn’t take off like “The French Chef,” her legacy is deeper than her name recognition may convey. And her hard work paved the way for many Asian American chefs.

“I have always admired Joyce Chen not only for her cooking, but her business acumen as well,” Ming Tsai, a fellow New Englander, TV chef, entrepreneur and restaurateur, said in an email. “I would see her line of woks and stuff, and that would inspire me to one day have my own line. Xie xie [Thank you] Chef Chen for leading the way!”

‘They sold out like hot cakes’

Born in Beijing in 1917 and raised just outside of Shanghai, Chen learned cooking by watching the family’s chef, according to Stephen.

As the Communist regime was taking over China in 1949, she fled with her husband, Thomas, and eldest children, Henry and Helen. They landed in Cambridge, Mass., just outside Boston, “because my mom’s friends in China who went to Harvard and MIT said if you go to America, you have to live in Cambridge,” Stephen recalled.

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In 1955, according to family lore, Chen got her first taste of culinary success when she made egg rolls for her children’s school fair and dropped them off at the goodie table. When she returned soon after, they had disappeared.

“Her first thought was that they must have been too horrible for the others to eat and they had to hide them under the table,” recalled her daughter, Helen, in a Zoom call from her home in Massachusetts. “But then the truth came out that they sold out like hot cakes and they asked my mother if she would make more.”

Her kids, now in their 70s, admit those egg rolls — with their thick skins, cabbage and pork — were nothing like the delicate spring rolls that Chinese eat during the spring festival. But they served as a symbol of Chen’s willingness to meet American taste buds where they were and coax them along.

In fact, in her 1962 “Joyce Chen Cook Book,” the author starts her egg roll recipe with “½ lb of Good Hamburger.”

This drive to make Chinese food and culture more accessible to average Americans would last throughout her career. She coined the term “Peking ravioli” to introduce New Englanders to northern style pot stickers and boiled Chinese dumplings. She also designed and patented a flat-bottomed wok that worked on American stoves with their lower heat levels.

She numbered all the items on her menu and introduced Chinese buffets to New England so diners could easily sample new, non-Cantonese dishes that reflected the cuisine of her native regions.

Shortly after her egg roll success, Chen started teaching cooking classes to home cooks, which eventually led her to open Joyce Chen Restaurant in Cambridge in 1958. Along with the expected chop suey, she served soup dumplings, moo shoo pork and Peking duck with pancakes.

In 1962, she self-published her cookbook.

“Publishers told her that no one wanted to see color pictures of food,” Stephen remembers with a laugh, adding that after the book’s initial success J.B. Lippincott Co. picked up the title and reprinted it many times.

Like Julia, but with wind chimes

In 1966, after Chen divorced her husband, she got an intriguing offer.

“A lot of the people from WGBH ate at our restaurant,” Stephen recalled. “And they were working on a show with Julia Child, and they asked my mom if she would consider doing a show, too.”

Stephen says his mom threw herself into the project, preparing TV-friendly recipes, taking lessons from a voice coach and rehearsing like crazy.

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“They would have to plan out exactly when the water was going to boil because back then you couldn’t edit it that easily,” he said. “So you had to do long sections just straight.”

Chen cranked out 26 half-hour episodes, showing viewers how to grow and cook bean sprouts, prepare Peking duck and egg foo young, and make boiled dumplings and pot stickers from scratch. But she also taught such basics as using chopsticks, making good tea and preparing the perfect pot of rice.

Chen filmed on the same set as “The French Chef” but with Asian touches, including screens and wind chimes. Her recipes delivered close approximations of Chinese food that American housewives could make using mostly ingredients they could find at the grocery store.

“One of the criticisms was that her Chinese accent was too strong,” Stephen said. “Some people just couldn’t understand what she was saying.”

The producers came up with a workaround, where she would spell out words that were hard to pronounce. Still, her popularity didn’t balloon like Child’s. It wasn’t for any lack of talent, “but it was just the time and age, and people were not ready yet,” Stephen said.

So when the station was renewing its cooking shows in 1967 and launching into the wonderful but expensive world of color TV, the executives chose “The French Chef” and not “Joyce Chen Cooks.”

New York University cinema studies professor Dana Polan noted their very different TV personas.

On one hand you had “Julia Child, who is wacky, eccentric, boisterous and larger than life, both metaphorically and literally,” he said in an interview. “And it was just like good television.”

“In contrast, Chen is much more pragmatic, like, let’s get down to business. She’s not fun in the same way.”

Chen did joke and smile on her show, but she lacked Child’s charming nuttiness and certainly the hyperactive style of the first breakthrough Chinese TV chef, Martin Yan.

Despite the cancellation of her cooking show, Chen found an ingenious way to return to public television. The rare opportunity emerged when Nixon unexpectedly opened up U.S.-China relations. Even after his historic trip, most Americans could not secure a visa to China. But Chen had a plan.

“She took me up to the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa,” Stephen recalled. “And she explained what we wanted to do and who we wanted to visit. And two weeks after we got back to Boston, they called to say, ‘Yes, you have permission to go to China.’”

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Chen had secured visas for Helen, Stephen and herself, then reached out to WGBH, whose producers agreed to give Stephen a crash course in cinematography.

“She paid for all the equipment and film because they had no idea what we would bring back,” said Stephen, who was 19 at the time.

It paid off. They came back with 16-millimeter footage of train travel, Chinese streets, family life and celebrations. Ironically, the footage didn’t include much food.

Executive producer Fred Barzyk had the job of pulling the footage together and blending the homecoming aspects with balanced political analysis.

He said he was intrigued by Chen’s ability “to kind of surreptitiously sneak in under the guise of a family visit because nobody was really quite sure how open China was going to be.”

Most of the film takes viewers across the country to visit factories, busy cities, farms, parades and the family village. But it finishes on a WGBH studio set with Chen serving dinner to two special guests: Harvard economics professor John Kenneth Galbraith and Newsweek foreign editor Edward Klein.

The scene feels a bit like “Good Morning America” and “Meet the Press” over dinner, with Klein asking the family if they suspect the Chinese government harbors a secret class of high-ranking bureaucrats who live better than anyone else. More fish, anyone?

After her time on TV, Chen poured herself into her restaurants (she would eventually open four), her children, her cookware and food line. You can still buy her sauces, dumplings and cookware online or in regional markets.

Through the 1970s, she was a constant presence in her restaurants, the final being a modernist shrine to Chinese cooking on Cambridge’s Rindge Avenue, where her guests included Henry Kissinger, Danny Kaye, Shirley Temple and, of course, Julia Child.

Barzyk recalled attending an early ’70s dinner where Chen presented slides from her China trip and introduced guests to a new chef who specialized in hand-pulled Chinese noodles.

“I ended up sitting next to Julia Child,” he said, “and when the noodle master came out she jumped up on her chair to get a better look. I had to hold on to her [by the waist] so she wouldn’t fall.”

In the early 1980s, Chen was carrying a jug of sauce down the stairs, and it broke and cut her hand, severing a nerve. She needed microsurgery, Stephen said, and after being under general anesthesia, she started to have memory difficulties. “She felt it started with that surgery on her hand,” he said. By the mid-’80s Chen started to withdraw from public appearances as she dealt with the onset of dementia.

The last Joyce Chen Restaurant closed in 1998, four years after she died, but her legacy carries on in her food and cookware line and even a children’s book, 2017’s “Dumpling Dreams.”

Helen manages the cookware line while Stephen manages the sauces, dumplings and archives of this fearless mid-century translator of Chinese culture.

“My mother was a pioneer when it came to just about everything, and she had this probing mind,” Helen said. “It wasn’t just the restaurant, the TV show, the cookware or the food products. It morphed into all kinds of aspects of Chinese food and culture. At that time people thought of Chinese food as chow mein and chop suey because they couldn’t travel, and she opened up a whole new world.”

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