(b. 14 September 1917 in Beijing, China; d. 23 August 1994 in Lexington, Massachusetts), chef and restaurateur who introduced authentic Mandarin Chinese cooking in the United States.
Chen was born Liao Jia Ai, the youngest of nine children. She was given the name Joyce by a teacher because of her “good grades and joyous disposition.” Her father, Liao Hsin-shih, was a railroad administrator and city executive. Chen referred to her mother as Mrs. Hsin-shih Liao. Her grandfather and his brothers held high-ranking positions in the Chin Dynasty. Despite being born into a well-to-do family, Chen was taught culinary skills “so I wouldn’t eat raw rice in case I couldn’t afford a family cook.” When she was sixteen years old her family moved to Shanghai, where in 1942 she married Thomas Chen (Chen Da Zhong). The couple had three children: two were born in Shanghai, and the third was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the family settled after fleeing China in 1949 just before the Communist revolution.
In Cambridge, Chen cooked in her home for Chinese students who were unable to find authentic Mandarin (Northern) cuisine in any Chinese restaurants. Her career was launched when the egg rolls she made for a fund-raiser at her children’s school quickly sold out and she was asked to make more. In 1958 she opened the first Joyce Chen Restaurant, featuring Mandarin Chinese cooking. She hoped the restaurant, located in Cambridge near Harvard University, would “serve as a cultural exchange center.” In 1960 she began to teach Chinese cooking at home and at adult-education centers. She eventually opened four restaurants in Boston, Cambridge, and Cape Cod, serving the Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology communities and such well-known figures as John Kenneth Galbraith, James Beard, Henry Kissinger, and Julia Child. She introduced Americans to moo-shu dishes and hot-and-sour soup and invented the term “Peking ravioli” to describe dumplings, also known as pot stickers, to Italian customers. She did not put chow mein, chop suey, or French bread on her menus or tables, and she did not have a different menu for non-Asian customers, a common practice at that time. At first she served a lunch buffet with Chinese dishes alongside Western foods but eventually “did away with the ham and turkey.” She often sponsored cultural culinary events like “Breakfast in Shanghai” to talk about Chinese food and culture.
In 1962 she self-published the first edition of the Joyce Chen Cook Book because publishers refused to print color pictures or the grid index she had devised for classifying recipes according to levels of cost, difficulty, and preparation and cooking time. She created uncomplicated Chinese recipes, meticulously tested, including American substitutes for hard-to-find ingredients, with pictures and detailed descriptions of spices, sauces, and ingredients. The book even included a tear-out shopping list in English with Chinese characters. Her text clearly explained the differences among regional styles of Chinese cooking. She also substituted oil for lard and was proud that the noted cardiologist Dr. Paul Dudley White wrote a laudatory introduction to the book.
Chen revolutionized Chinese restaurant menus by devising the now-common numbering system. Because her cooks did not read English, and the customers did not read Chinese, she simply numbered the menu items. In 1966 she created Joyce Chen Cooks for WGBH TV, the Public Broadcasting System outlet in Boston, sharing a cooking studio with Julia Child. Chen, who was five-feet, two-inches tall, had to wear high heels to work comfortably at the counters that were built for the six-foot tall Child. The twenty-six-episode series won the Reader’s Digest new show award. She was the first person of Asian ancestry to have her own television program. In 1972 she traveled to China and made the PBS documentary Joyce Chen’s China.
Chen was called the “godmother” of authentic Chinese cooking. Unable to find enough knowledgeable or experienced cooks in the United States, she brought over many chefs from China. Despite immigration quotas, Chen lobbied politicians who had been her customers to help her bring in the people she needed. A 1974 genealogy of Chinese restaurants nationwide shows the cooks Chen brought into the country who then established restaurants of their own, including the famous Uncle Tai’s in Manhattan.
An entrepreneur as well as a chef, Chen founded Joyce Chen Products, selling specialty cookware. She was the first to import polyethylene cutting boards into the United States. She designed and patented a flat-bottom wok with a long handle that could be used on electric stoves, and marketed specially designed cooking shears and cleavers. In 1984 Joyce Chen Specialty Foods began to sell prepared sauces, oils, and condiments as a subsidiary—along with Joyce Chen Products—of Joyce Chen, Inc.
In 1985 multi-infarct dementia, or possibly Alzheimer’s disease, forced her to retire. Her daughter Helen Chen, also a noted chef and cookbook author, succeeded Joyce as chief executive officer of the company. (Joyce and Thomas Chen had divorced in the mid-1960s.) Joyce’s children cared for her at home until 1993, when she entered the Fairlawn nursing home in Lexington. She died there of cardiac arrest at the age of seventy-six. She is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
In February 1996 Chen was elected to the hall of fame of the Nation’s Restaurant News, called the “NRN Fifty,” joining James Beard, Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Jefferson (who is listed as “America’s first gourmet”), Howard Johnson, and Ray Kroc. In 1998 she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation Hall of Fame, “created to pay tribute to culinary figures who made lasting contributions to America’s culinary scene.” In the foundation’s words, Chen was a chef who “set the standards for Asian cuisine in America.”
Autobiographical information is in the Joyce Chen Cook Book (1962) and Helen Chen’s Chinese Home Cooking (1994). Bo Burlingham, “Joyce Chen and the Szechuan-Cambridge Connection,” The Real Paper [Cambridge] (1974), traces the genealogy of Chinese cooks who started their careers in Joyce Chen’s restaurants. Nation’s Restaurant News (Feb. 1996) has biographical information, as does an article by Nina Simonds in News from the Beard House (Oct. 1994). Obituaries are in the Boston Globe (25 Aug. 1994) and New York Times (26 Aug. 1994).
Jane Brodsky Fitzpatrick