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Joyce Chen Was a Pioneer of Chinese Food in America

She helped us learn to love and cook the cuisine.

Associate Digital Food Editor
Joyce Chen family
Photography by: Courtesy of Stephen Chen

Have you heard of Joyce Chen? Though she doesn’t have the same name recognition as one of her contemporaries, Julia Child (Chen was actually often called “the Julia Child of Chinese cooking”), her accomplishments are just as worthy of celebration. Born Liao Jia-ai in Peking (now Beijing) in 1917, Chen was the youngest child of a high-ranking government official in the Chin dynasty.

 

She learned to cook at a young age, a rare exception for someone with her family’s stature. She wrote in the dedication page of her first cookbook: "When I was a young girl, my parents always encouraged me to stand on my own feet. They trained me to do things myself. Whenever I entered the kitchen, my mother never forgot to remind me that I should learn how to cook so I wouldn't eat rice raw in case I couldn't afford a family cook in the future."

Joyce Chen cooking
Photography by: Courtesy of Stephen Chen

Little did her mother know that her daughter would grow up to become a trailblazing chef, restaurateur, author, and television host in America. Chen fled from China’s communist regime to Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and children in 1949. It wasn’t long before she started developing a reputation for her cooking, from the dinners she hosted for fellow Chinese expats to the egg rolls she made for her daughter’s school events.

 

In 1958, Chen opened her first restaurant, the Joyce Chen restaurant, serving northern Chinese cuisine that Americans were largely unfamiliar with at the time. She popularized now-ubiquitous dishes including Peking duck, hot and sour soup, and moo shu pork, as well as coined the term "Peking ravioli" for potstickers to make the dumplings more approachable. Chen also counted among her regulars such luminaries as Jacqueline Onassis, Henry Kissinger, James Beard, and none other than Julia Child herself.

Joyce Chen on TV
Photography by: Courtesy of Stephen Chen

On top of running the restaurant, Chen taught cooking classes at the Boston and Cambridge Centers for Adult Education and self-published the “Joyce Chen Cook Book.” After thousands of copies were sold to diners at the restaurant, the cookbook was commercially published in 1962. In it, she meticulously explained Chinese cooking techniques and flavor combinations, substituting American ingredients when necessary and successfully navigating the tricky balance between authentic and accessible.

 

In 1966, Chen became the pioneer of another medium: television. “Joyce Chen Cooks” on PBS was the first nationally broadcast cooking program hosted by a woman of color. It was filmed on the same set used by Julia Child at WGBH-TV Boston and produced by the same team. In each half-hour episode, Chen strived to demystify Chinese food for Americans and make it doable for home cooks.

Joyce Chen holding a wok
Photography by: Courtesy of Stephen Chen

While the show only lasted one season, Chen didn’t stop there. She eventually added three more eponymous restaurants to her slate and introduced a collection of Chinese cooking equipment, including a game-changing flat-bottomed wok she patented in 1970. She also founded Joyce Chen Foods, a line of condiments, oils, and spices, in 1984.

 

Chen passed away in 1994 at the age of 76, but the accolades have only continued. In 1998, she was inducted into the James Beard Hall of Fame. In 2014, she was commemorated as an American culinary icon in the U.S. Postal Service’s “Celebrity Chef Forever” stamp series, along with Beard, Child, Edna Lewis, and Edward Rojas-Lombardi. Chen is currently also featured in museum exhibits from coast to coast, from “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion” at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco to “CHOW: Making the Chinese American Restaurant” at the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn. The fingerprints of her legacy can be seen in almost every Chinese-American restaurant in the country today, and if you're in New England, in the enduring popularity of "Peking ravioli."