Chen, Joyce (1918–1994)

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Chen, Joyce (1918–1994)

Chinese-born American cooking teacher, author, television personality and restaurateur who played a major role in introducing Americans to authentic Chinese cuisine starting in the 1950s. Born in Beijing, China, in 1918; died in Lexington, Massachusetts, in August 1994; immigrated to the United States in 1949; married; children: Helen Chen; Henry; Stephen.

In the mid-20th century, Chinese restaurants had as their staple dishes such offerings as chow mein, chop suey, and, oddly enough, French bread. The great majority of Americans, lacking contact with authentic Chinese culture, accepted this sort of cuisine as the genuine article. Joyce Chen, a recently arrived immigrant from China, was determined to radically change this situation. A pioneer of Chinese cooking in the United States, she would face a daunting task when opening a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the 1950s.

Born in 1918 into a prosperous family, Chen was interested in food even as a child and watched as the family cook prepared delicious meals in the kitchen. Whereas most upper-class women in China did not cook or take an interest in food preparation, the Chen family women were exceptions, with Joyce's mother encouraging this interest by telling her daughter, "You never know what the future will bring, and you don't want to eat raw rice."

The future turned out to be highly uncertain for Joyce Chen, her husband, and her two children when they fled mainland China in 1949 after the Communist takeover. Having settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Chen family began what was for them a difficult but exhilarating adventure of Americanization. Joyce Chen was determined to help her family succeed economically while remaining proud of their Chinese heritage. She found a means of doing both, first by teaching Chinese cooking in her home and at adult education centers in her neighborhood. In 1958, she opened a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge. Introducing the American palate to genuine Chinese food was not always a simple matter, and one of Chen's early customers registered his suspicion by grumbling, "What kind of Chinese restaurant is this that doesn't serve French bread?" Her strategy was simple and involved offering a buffet that began with standard American foods such as ham, roast beef and turkey but then moved on to authentic Chinese dishes not often then found in Chinese restaurants, such as hot-and-sour soup and moo shu pork. Slowly, the doubters were won over, and the non-Chinese foods were phased out of the buffet line.

Within a few years, Joyce Chen had emerged as America's "godmother of Chinese cooking." Her Cambridge restaurant was a hit, regularly attracting such local culinary and academic luminaries as Julia Child , James Beard, Henry Kissinger and John Kenneth Galbraith. Both students and faculty at Harvard and M.I.T. became regular patrons at the Joyce Chen restaurant, and by word of mouth her cooking became known throughout the United States. The next step in her career was a television program on the Public Broadcasting System, "Joyce Chen Cooks." A cookbook written in 1964 was privately published after commercial publishers lost interest when Chen insisted on color pictures of the various dishes. This edition was a hit with diners at her restaurant, selling more than 6,000 copies to satisfied customers. The commercial edition that followed was a great success.

Chen continually worked to improve the offerings at her restaurant and spread the message of Chinese cuisine throughout the United States. In her own words, she spoke of a "desire to open a Chinese restaurant which would make American customers happy and Chinese customers proud." Chen displayed considerable savvy in winning over new devotees to Chinese cuisine, coining the term "Peking ravioli" for dumplings, which likely made this dish more intriguing for the large number of New Englanders of Italian descent. After creating a large clientele, she disseminated her intense pride in Chinese civilization in a series of special culinary events in which she presented different foods and explained the cultural context in which those foods evolved. As time went by and her audiences became more knowledgeable, Joyce Chen gave increasingly specialized talks about Chinese cuisine, including one entitled "Breakfast in Shanghai," a popular presentation featuring authentic breakfast foods and a talk on the role of breakfast in China.

By the end of her life, Joyce Chen had not only made Chinese food a major aspect of America's cuisine but had also created a thriving business

empire that included a successful restaurant and a cookware firm, Joyce Chen Products, that marketed such previously unknown items as a flat-bottomed wok, the polyethylene cutting board, and the "Peking Pan" (a stir-fry pan with rounded sides, a flat bottom and a Western-style skillet). Her children, Helen, Henry and Stephen, kept her legacy alive after her death and worked hard to make the companies she founded grow and thrive. Remarked her daughter Helen Chen , Joyce Chen "accomplished a beginning. She was never one to sit back and say, 'Now we've done it.' Her mind was always turning out new ideas."


"Joyce Chen merges with Keilen," in HFN: The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network. Vol. 69, no. 9. February 27, 1995, p. 27.

"Joyce Chen, 76, U.S. Popularizer Of Mandarin Cuisine," in The New York Times Biographical Service. August 1994, p. 1287.

Weiland, Jeanne. "Joyce Chen: Joyce Chen Inc. founder and first to introduce authentic Chinese cooking to U.S. restaurants," in Nation's Restaurant News. Vol. 30. February 1996, p. 56.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia