Joyce Chen was a mid-20th-century Boston-area restaurateur, television cooking show host and cookbook author who sought to provide Americans with genuine Chinese food in an age when soy sauce was an exotic ingredient found on the gourmet shelf in markets.
Chen died in 1994 at age 76, but her influence lingers on store shelves and in kitchen cabinets. Her name is used on a well-regarded line of Asian cookware, tools and accessories marketed by Columbian Home Products. There is also Joyce Chen Foods, owned by her son Stephen, producing cooking sauces, condiments and frozen foods.
“She is the Chinese Julia Child,” said Ming Tsai, chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and television personality. “Joyce Chen helped elevate what Chinese food was about. She didn’t dumb it down. She opened people’s eyes to what good Chinese could taste like.”
Chen moved to the United States from China in 1949. She opened her first restaurant in 1958 in Cambridge, Mass. From the start, it was a departure from the norm, as her daughter vividly remembers.
“When we opened the restaurant, there was one menu for everybody. Chinese restaurants often had two menus, one in English and one only in Chinese,” said Helen Chen, who has written a number of cookbooks and has her own eponymous line of Chinese cooking tools and equipment. “My mother disliked it. She disliked the feeling non-Chinese people were left out.”
Yet Chen still had to persuade Westerners to try her dishes. One idea: marketing pot-sticker dumplings as Peking Ravioli. Another idea: buffet tables featuring some authentic dishes so guests could sample new foods and painlessly expand their comfort zones.
“Little by little, those dishes became more popular,” Helen Chen recalled. “People were realizing there was more to Chinese food than chow mein and chop suey.”
Jasper White, a restaurateur and cookbook author, wrote in an email that it took Chen’s success to convince other Chinese restaurant owners “there was an emerging market in America for authentic Chinese food — and all this coincided with the birth of the ‘new American Cuisine’ and the explosion of the American hunger for good food of all varieties.”
While Joyce Chen was a “catalyst” for change, to use White’s word, the charge was famously being led by another Cambridge resident, Julia Child. The success of her public TV series, “The French Chef,” got the folks at WGBH, the Boston public TV channel producing Child’s series, to wonder if there were other cuisines that could translate well on television.
“Joyce Chen Cooks” resulted. The 26-episode series was shot in black and white in 1966 and aired nationally. The programs, said food historian Barbara Haber of Winchester, Mass., were as “eye-opening” as Chen’s restaurants had been.
But for Tsai, Chen’s biggest impact on American culture has to be introducing the flat-bottomed wok, which worked better on American ranges than the traditional round-bottomed pan.
“That invention put her on the map,” he said. “You can be in Oklahoma and get a Joyce Chen wok.”
Prep/cook: 50 minutes
1 pound lean pork
1 teaspoon dry sherry
3 slices fresh ginger root
¼ cup cooking oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ pound regular cabbage, cut in 2-by-2-inch pieces, about 2 or 3 cups
2 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ cup fermented black beans, minced
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes or powder
2 tablespoons soy sauce
¼ cup stock from cooking pork
¼ teaspoon MSG, optional
1. Simmer the pork in a small saucepan with 2 cups water, sherry and 1 slice ginger until tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the saucepan from heat and let cool. Cut the cooked pork into large slices about ¼-inch thick and reserve the stock for later use.
2. Put 2 tablespoons of oil in a hot skillet over medium heat. Add salt, then cabbage, stirring constantly for one minute. When the cabbage is half translucent, remove and spread on a plate.
3. Pour the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the same skillet over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 slices ginger, crushed garlic and minced black beans for a few stirrings, then add hot pepper flakes and sliced pork. Pour in the soy sauce, stock and MSG, if using. Stir and cook for 1 minute. Mix in the cooked cabbage and serve immediately.