Taste – The “Good” and the “Bad” in Chinese American restaurants
Cecilia Chiang is often described as the “matriarch of authentic Chinese cooking in the United States.” Her restaurant, The Mandarin – which opened in San Francisco in the 1960s – attracted a clientele of celebrities, the wealthy and the glamorous. Described as the first Chinese fine dining restaurant in the United States, it was distinguished not only by its food (presenting unfamiliar dishes from Northern China) but by its upscale interior design, the service, and Cecilia’s glamour and charm.
Before the Mandarin, most of us were used to eating Chinese food surrounded by Formica and Linoleum. Chiang upgraded that significantly, creating a restaurant that reflected her impeccable taste. She created an impressive interior with a wood-beamed ceiling, dark wood appointments, subtle Chinese art and expensive McGuire chairs. It was so beautiful it eclipsed the views of Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf right outside the windows. The service was as smooth and professional as you’d find in the most expensive French restaurants.
– Food critic, Michael Bauer
Taste, taste, taste taste taste. Among the countless Chinese restaurants that have operated in the United States, what made The Mandarin exceptional was that it was perceived to express “good taste” and to dine there therefore indicated that you also possessed “good taste”. Chiang herself was from a wealthy family, and grew up in a 52 room mansion in Beijing where the family was attended by two chefs. Before opening the restaurant she had never cooked. In emphasising the distinction of Cecilia’s tastes, The Mandarin gave Chinese culture in America an elite expression. It announced to Americans that Chinese culture was capable of being artful when produced and appreciated by a sophisticated eye (and palate).
The restaurant is a rich cipher for examining ‘taste’ – being a space where meanings and values are piled up on top of food, a basic human need. As Bourdieu writes, “nothing is more distinctive, more distinguished than the capacity to confer aesthetic status on objects that are banal or even ‘common’.
In the narrative of Chinese food in America, The Mandarin is posited as the antithesis of the “chop suey houses” of the 60s.
chop suey house — The Mandarin
Cantonese — Mandarin
Americanised — authentic
peasant food — fine dining
food — cuisine
poor quality — high quality
cheap — expensive
generic — glamorous
formica table — white tablecloth
Bourdieu suggests, “art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences.” Chinese food – and thus to an extent, Chinese culture – were legitimised in America by restaurants such as The Mandarin, which made visible the existence of class difference (expressed through notions of “good taste” and “bad taste”) within Chinese culture.
Pierre Bourdieu, A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans Richard Nice (Harvard University Press, 1984) 1-13.